How to Blend in when traveling in Turkey
A good friend of mine is moving to the Adana area to teach at Cag University in the fall. In thinking about his arrival, I thought it might be good to write an open letter to travelers in Turkey about how to dress in Turkey. I come into this topic knowing that many will disagree with me, some vigorously. I just wanted to get my thoughts on this sensitive topic out online and hear what others think.
I want to start today however with a personal principle about traveling in Turkey: Remain Unnoticed.
At every stage of my travels in Turkey (10 day, 40 day, 1-year trips and long term residence,) I’ve thought of myself as something totally beyond “touristy”. I think that many people traveling in Turkey also separate themselves in their mind from the average “Tourist” in some way, but we all start out as tourists, don’t we? So here’s my question: How do you want to be perceived? My philosophy is that I usually don’t want to be noticed by anybody other than the person I’m interracting with. I don’t want to stick out when I walk down the road, I don’t want people to observe me as a “tourist” when they see me walking down the street. I want to remain unnoticed.
Four advantages to remaining unnoticed:
- You’re not immediately identified by the leeches of society who attempt to befriend foreigners for manipulative reasons (for more on this, see this great article about Carpet Salesmen in Turkey).
- Your presence doesn’t disrupt the activity that’s going on around you, thus allowing you to observe Turkish life as it really is.
- You can avoid getting unwanted help and advice from nosy people and being treated as stupid because you’re a naïve foreigner. (Note that when you truly need help, Turks are incredibly helpful, but if know where you’re going and why, there’s nothing more annoying than having a local trying to convince you that you shouldn’t go there or do that.)
- You don’t single yourself out as a target for people how may want to do westerners harm.
I think one of the greatest keys to remaining unnoticed is our apparel, which will be covered in a future article. Beyond dress, here are my four recommendations for remaining unnoticed.
- Speak Quietly- This is the big one. I’ve observed that Americans are very loud in public when traveling in Turkey, and our voices really carry. This is the big thing that makes Americans stick out. I think it has to do with how the sound of our voices disrupts the normal daily white noise.
The # 1 way to blend in is to speak quietly. I am NOT a stickler about this. When I’m moving about in my neighborhood, I don’t mind if I’m noticed. But when I’m in a new area or a place where I’m trying to blend in (downtown, a new city, a different neighborhood, a government office, etc), I speak rarely and in low tones. I think for people new to the country, this should be practiced everywhere except for designated tourist areas.
- Walk Purposefully – one thing that I’ve noticed is that newcomers walk differently. They walk as someone in awe, slowly taking in the whole scene and gobbling up the moment. There’s nothing wrong with that… unless your goal is to blend in. Walking purposefully at the pace of others around will really help you to blend in.
- Think Twice about Big Accessories – If your goal is to blend in, then the baby backpack, the jogging stroller, the Indiana Jones hat, the CamelBak, or anything else that you don’t see people walking around with should be reconsidered. These and similar contraptions identify you as something different. If your goal is comfort, fine. If your goal is to blend in, you need to think twice about big accessories.
Go With the Flow – Think of Turkish society as a river filled with logs moving steadily, purposefully toward the mill. As a foreigner, you’re a canoe in that river. You’re not that different in size and shape from the logs in the river, and if you do things right, you get into the flow, enjoy the ride and get out when you need to. The best way to do this is to just follow the cues to do what the people around you are doing. Walk at the pace they walk, dress the way they dress, flow with what’s going on and enjoy the river. When you don’t do this, you disrupt the flow and experience a version of Turkey that’s different from normal, you risk detours and even personal harm. Try to fit in and go with the flow and I believe you’ll enjoy Turkey more.