Earlier this month, I went on a short-notice impromptu trip to Turkey. To be honest, Turkey really wasn’t ranked highly on my travel bucket list and I hadn’t considered ever traveling there.
At the end of August, my friend Nathalie and I had an amazing time attending the Burning Man festival. We had so much fun together, Nathalie invited me to tag along with her on a family vacation she had planned in Turkey. I had about five weeks to decide if I wanted to go and to book the plane ticket. Of course I said “yes” and made the arrangements.
In 2007, computer science professor Randy Pausch (who had recently received a terminal pancreatic cancer diagnosis) shared some advice two months before his death in his Carnegie Mellon University commencement speech.
“It is not the things we do in life that we regret on our death bed. It is the things we do not. I assure you I’ve done a lot of really stupid things, and none of them bother me. All the mistakes, and all the dopey things, and all the times I was embarrassed — they don’t matter. What matters is that I can kind of look back and say: Pretty much any time I got the chance to do something cool I tried to grab for it — and that’s where my solace comes from.”
I’ve had a couple of cancer diagnoses myself and have an outlook similar to the one Dr. Pausch personified. Since reading that quote, I have attempted to embrace his advice. Traveling with a fun companion on a spontaneous trip to a country neither of us had ever seen before is the very definition of “something cool” to which Dr. Pausch referred. I booked the tickets and joined Nathalie in Turkey.
Nathalie’s trip started in Istanbul and then went to Cappadocia, Ephesus, and the Mediterranean resort town of Bodrum, before returning to Istanbul. Due to previously-booked teaching engagements, I couldn’t accompany her for the entire trip. I joined her in Bodrum and then flew back to Istanbul with her before spending a few more days in the capital city. All in all, it was a 10-day trip and I really enjoyed myself.
Bodrum is a resort town on the Aegean Sea catering to wealthy Europeans and Russians craving some sun, sailing, and beach time. Not many Americans make it there. It was curious. Many of the local residents spoke some English. They all assumed I was British despite my lack of a British accent because they so seldom see Americans. We spent four nights at the luxurious Caresse Hotel lounging on the beach and swimming in the crystal clear Aegean waters.
The town was pretty low key, but had some cool history. We saw the original gates that Alexander the Great walked through when first traversing the country in the fourth century B.C and the nearly 2500 year old Theatre at Halicarnassus.
We visited some museums and the historic Bodrum Castle built in the year 1402. We toured the final resting place of King Mausolos, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This burial site is the origin of the word “mausoleum.” It was rather unimpressive.
We spent a lot of our spare time walking through the local shopping bazaars, checking out all the fancy boats in the marina, eating great food, and enjoying the fun waterfront atmosphere.
I’m not much of a photographer, but Nathalie is. I let her take all the cool photos. Here are some of the fun things we saw. Photo credits Nathalie Weister.
After Bodrum, we transitioned to the capital city of Istanbul. Istanbul is a city split by the Bosporus Straight. Half of the city is in Europe and half is in Asia. The vibe was very different than the atmosphere in Bodrum. The big city is a unique mixture of ancient history and a modern, fairly secular Muslim capital city.
Despite the fact that the vast majority of Istanbul’s residents practice the Islamic faith, I saw relatively few hijabs. The regular calls to prayer issued from every mosque generally went unheeded. It was a strange combination of the historic Ottoman Empire and the hustle of a modern capital city.
After Nathalie flew home, I spent a couple more days eating lots of good food and touring the historic sites. I enjoyed the Grand Bazaar, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the “mini Hagia Sophia,” the Cistern Basillica and half a dozen other mosques that were all more than 400 years old. It’s a perspective shift to be touring structures that are more than twice as old as the oldest buildings you can find in the United States.
One thing I like about traveling is that it allows the traveler to experience things that are very different than one sees at home. Here are a few more curious things I saw or experienced on the trip that my readers might find interesting.
The Istanbul airport is very impressive. It’s the largest airport in Europe and the 7th largest in the world. It’s absolutely massive. On my three visits during this trip I walked more than two miles each trip just to get through security and get to my gate. The business class lounge is utterly ridiculous. It covers the entire second floor of the airport and is probably 200 meters long.
All the airports in Turkey have a dual airport security system. Since the famous airport bombing and active killer attack in the ticketing area before security, Turkish airports have placed metal detectors and baggage x-ray systems just inside the each airport’s door. In order to make it to the ticket counter, you must place your bags in an X-ray scanner and walk through a metal detector.
After getting your boarding passes and checking your luggage, you must again go through a traditional airport screening system. On international flights, the Turkish equivalent of the TSA also hand searches each passenger’s carry-on bags and physically pats each passenger down before they get on the plane. It’s quite a process. I got really familiar with how the system worked when I almost got arrested.
I had no idea how many stray cats I would see wandering the streets in Turkey. The entire culture reveres cats and everyone regularly feeds the strays that live everywhere. For the religious background about why cats are honored in Muslim countries, read Why Are There So Many Cats in Istanbul?
This article describes the country’s no catch, no kill policies with regards to feral cats and estimates that there may be up to a million stray cats in Istanbul alone.
Other than the incident I previously described at the airport, I had minimal contact with the police. There was a moderate number of visible police officers in both Bodrum and Istanbul. In popular tourist areas there was a massive police presence (especially in the days immediately after the October 7 HAMAS attack in Israel). They didn’t seem interested in shaking down any of the tourists for bribes.
After October 7th, I saw lots of random searches at the popular tourist attractions. The cops stopped everyone carrying large luggage or bags and searched the bags for explosives and weapons.
Cops in Turkey carry the 9mm Canik TP-9 Elite in a generic version of the Blackhawk Serpa holster. Most cops carried handcuffs and two spare magazines in open top mag carriers. I didn’t see any uniformed officers carrying long guns, batons, or pepper spray.
I spoke to a few Turkish gun owners and police officers during my stay. In Turkey, citizens may not possess any semi or fully automatic firearms. A license (requiring a background check, home inspection, psychological exam, and doctor’s note attesting that the applicant is physically healthy) is required for each weapon they want to own.
The licenses must be renewed every five years. A possession license does not allow the owner to take the weapon out of the address specified on the permit. The gun possession license also specifies how much ammunition you may have for that gun. The general license commonly allows for purchase and possession of up to 200 rounds per year for each weapon. Ammunition is sold by the government. Possession of ammo without a gun license is illegal.
A separate license to carry is needed to take the gun out of your residence or business. Those are seldom granted and require a documented “need.” In addition to the weapons ownership permit, a hunting license is also required to own a rifle. Despite the rigid legal requirements to own a gun, there are 16.5 guns owned for every 100 Turkish citizens. Contrast that with the USA where there are 120 firearms for each 100 citizens.
I was on the lookout for local gun stores to visit. I walked dozens of miles exploring both Bodrum and Istanbul without coming across a single gun shop. I’m sure they exist, but I didn’t find any. What I did find in my explorations were numerous storefronts that looked like this.
They weren’t open during the day, but in the evening the security doors were lifted to reveal airsoft gun shooting galleries.
The storefronts were airsoft shooting galleries. They attracted crowds like the BB gun booths I saw as a child at the state fair. The shops had high end gas-powered airsoft rifles with knockoff versions of popular optics. Of course we had to give them a try. Two magazines’ worth of airsoft BBs cost the equivalent of $10 US.
I picked a AR-style rifle with a knockoff EOTech sight. I went 29 for 30 on the small knockdown targets placed 10 meters away. The crowd watching was screaming in encouragement and yelling the English word “military” to explain my shooting prowess. They saw my haircut and assumed I was a soldier. I didn’t have the heart to tell all the spectators that I have more than a few real AR-15s at home and can shoot them whenever I want.
After I shot, I gave Nathalie her first impromptu shooting lesson. She had never before fired any kind of gun. She loved the airsoft rifle and did very well. We are going to go shooting for real the next time she visits. It seems like these airsoft shooting galleries are just about the only way Turkish citizens can shoot for recreation if they don’t have a firearms license.
On my first day in Bodrum and my final day in Istanbul, I intentionally played the role of a clueless tourist and engaged all the scam artists and hustlers I could find. There were plenty of both, but the hustlers were far more common. Most were touts trying to get tourists to buy the stuff they have for sale. Most of the “scams” they used involved isolating the tourist, getting him into a private location, and using high pressure sales to get the tourist to buy more of their wares.
I did learn one new ATM scam that I will detail in my upcoming travel scam book.
The scam I found most amusing involved selling shoes. Take a look at the photo below. That’s two shoes (one pair) for 20 pounds not two PAIRS of shoes for 20 pounds. I saw a couple of British tourists get taken by this one.
I had no idea about the extent of medical tourism in Turkey until I arrived there. It’s one of the top destinations in the world for tourist surgeries. I spoke with a few medical tourists who claimed that their surgeries cost 1/3 to 1/2 the price as the same surgeries in the United States.
One of the most popular surgeries seemed to be hair transplants. I saw a stunning number of patients in the tourist areas with large bandages on their heads after having hair transplants. Almost all the male passengers on my flight back to the USA were wearing headbands covering the area on the back of their scalp that was removed in order to harvest the hair. It was wild.
I will be posting a few more articles about my trip on my travel blog. Look there in the coming weeks if you want to learn more about this unique tourist destination.