Dispatch: Kusadasi Showcases the Real Turkey Beyond the Headlines
PHOTO: That's me and my son T.J. at the amphitheater ruins in Miletus, Turkey. (All photos by Tim Wood)
The words, the images, the picture painted are all dark and sinister at the moment.
It’s very easy to take at face value what you see on your TV. And as of late, all the news coming out of Turkey has been at best alarming and at its base, a visceral affront.
You don’t hear about the Turkey that ranks in the top 15 economies in the world. We can blame the terrorists for that, or in the latest dose of tragic news, perceived extremism.
The truth of how Egyptair’s crash in the Mediterranean Sea is still very much a mystery, but when you have one of the frontrunners to be our next President making a knee-jerk statement that it had to be terrorists, it’s more bad news that the Turkish people don’t want to hear.
So when we learned that a port of call in Turkey was added back into our itinerary for the 10-day European sailing of the Carnival Vista, it caused quite a bit of pause among passengers. To see that we were essentially sailing right into the middle of a potential crash site, it was unsettling even for me, a guy constantly rebuffing and disputing my father’s travel angst and apathy.
READ MORE: How Turkey's Tourism is Struggling
That paranoia is the result of a building campaign of perception that resonates with an already weary U.S. traveler. Here’s the truth: we visited Rome, Naples, Marseilles and Athens in this trip, and my favorite port of call was Kusadasi hands down.
This wasn’t even Carnival’s preferred Turkish port. Izmir wins that kudos, and so it seemed strange to sub in a relatively unknown port in times of elevated security concerns.
But what my son and I saw on our port stop in Kusadasi was a vibrant waterfront economy. The streets were clean and felt safe. There was an energy of commerce and culture that hits you the minute you get off the ship. Whereas just getting out of the port in less than a half hour was a victory in Civitavecchia/Rome, a welcoming city was just steps away through an organized port security line.
The Turkish government’s political games and strategic coupling with radical Middle Eastern regimes is in sharp contrast to what you hear from the citizens on the sidewalks of Kusadasi. There is much love for America from the locales, though the city does not feel desperate to embrace the material trappings of Western culture. Yes, there’s an occasional iPhone logo on a phone store and outside the city, in the many shopping outlets, you’ll find a conservative sprinkle of McDonald’s and Burger King. But Turkey is much more about exporting their goods and closely guards the volume of cultural imports.
In the quaint village of Aydin that houses the Temple of Apollo, Wi-Fi is advertised boldly on the billboard for Ora, one of a handful of restaurants in town. The beer selection is mainly Turkish featuring national fave Efes, but the bartender/DJ’s CD case has an eclectic smattering of American musical treasures such as Bell Biv Devoe, Vanilla Ice, New Edition, Milli Vanilli and Miles Davis.
The visit to a carpet-making factory seemed like an odd ending to a history-filled excursion – perhaps a payoff to the tour company for making the stop. And it very well may have been, but once inside, it was crystal clear that the carpets were a source of intense national pride.
The women weaving the various colored fibers into the makeup of each carpet are paid well and for good reason. The weaving calls for precision handwork, so taxing that each weaver works for just 10 minutes at a time and do a total of just two hours of weaving each day.
The finer carpets with intricate portraits or patterns and a silky touch can take up to two years to make and the larger pieces can fetch up to $20,000, as I found out when I expressed interest in a piece.
The sales tactics were textbook American, as my son and I were separated from our tour group and ushered to a private closed-door showroom. The sales pitch was full of national pride, pulling at the heart strings to think of the women feeding their families and the investment that my son will treasure and pass down to sons for centuries.
I asked for the no-haggle price, but the manager was called in to deliver the insanely low offer. This was the latest reminder that terrorism was hurting tourism and clearly, the carpet factory’s bottom line. That said, sadly we were not in the same zip code in negotiations. Despite being repeatedly asked to not think with my wallet but to instead look into my heart, there will be no Turkish masterpieces on the floors of my new Massachusetts home.
“That was very mafia,” my son said as we pushed our way out through what now was a total of six managers and salesmen to rejoin our group. “I didn’t think we were getting those doors open.”
It was a great laugh and a lifelong memory that just 24 hours earlier seemed but a remote possibility. As the Vista sailed head-on into the deep Mediterranean Sea where an Egyptair plane had reportedly crashed, the fears my family had voiced before our trip felt justified. We went to bed watching CNN International and expecting notice that we would be bypassing Turkey.
Come sunrise, we were in port in Kusadasi. While both ship and company officials had closely monitored the situation, we were hundreds of miles from any potential international incident and a nixing of the port call was more lido deck scuttlebutt than reality. Nonetheless, the corps of security tugboats escorting us into harbor was an early-morning reality check.
The Egyptair plane crash was a tragedy and a reminder of the ever-perilous worldwide security threats. But Kusadasi was a microcosm of our entire European experience aboard the Vista. Trip cancellations from the U.S. to Europe are far outpacing the on-the-ground truths at this point.
For those who have the courage to cast aside the fear and make that trip, Kusadasi is a heart-warming, smile-inducing reward. It’s a gem of a waterfront find not as commonly promoted or heavily populated as Istanbul, Ankara or Izmir. And just as Ephesus is the more heavily trafficked ruins-filled tourist attraction, the amphitheater in Miletus and the Temple of Apollo make for an equally fulfilling history-focused excursion.
PHOTO: The remains of the ampitheater in Miletus.
We wanted more than our seven hours on shore, but it’s now on my must-return list for certain. It’s one of the continued joys of travel when a spot just happened upon becomes a no-brainer bucket list suggestion.
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