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My Trip To Turkey: An Alumna's Account
Ninoshka Abreu
Durfee Alumni
2/25/2013

Editor's Note: The Durfee Hilltop is fortunate to feature a series of accounts from alumna Ninoshka Abreu. She will be sending regular blog posts about her experiences in her study abroad program in Turkey.

Merhaba! My name is Ninoshka Abreu Guerra and I am a senior at the George Washington University in Washington DC.  I’m majoring in International Affairs with a concentration in Security with a minor in Geography. I graduated from Durfee in 2010 and recently went back as a substitute teacher. Through these articles, I intend to entice students into going to college and studying abroad. I believe no boundary is unbreakable with enough effort and perseverance. The stereotypes society has placed on all of us can be broken through education; therefore, if you’re not thinking about college, you should be, and hopefully I can be of help in changing your mind.

Since freshmen year at Durfee, I had known what career path I would pursue. I have always been very good at picking up foreign languages and minimizing accents, I have always been interested in different cultures and I have always been intrigued by politics and security issues—particularly international security issues like, for example, terrorism. These things are the focus of my studies at GW. I am extremely fortunate to study what I love the most, and I worked my back off in order to study what I am most passionate about. I applied to GW Early Decision, I applied for government aid (FAFSA) and I regret not applying for private scholarships. I lived in the projects of Fall River and my mom’s income was not as high as many of the students that go to Durfee. That, along with the fact that my grades were impeccable, got me a free ride to Providence College, Worcester State University and a lot of scholarships, grants and loans from GW—my dream school. The best decision in my life was applying to GW. If it was not for GW I would not live in the most politically active area of Washington DC, I would not have my amazing government job, and I would not be in Turkey right now!

Why Turkey? So many people have asked me this question—many of them not being able to locate Turkey on a map, mind you. “Why not?” is my response; it only happens to be at the crossroads of East (Middle East/Asia) and West (Europe), it only happens to be one of the most amazing historical locations of the world, it only happens to be unique in every single aspect of what I love to study—language, culture, politics and security. It is almost a silly question to me, how could I not choose to study in Istanbul? This just might be the second-best decision of my life. Who would have thought that I, a Latina woman from the poor neighborhoods of Puerto Rico and Massachusetts, would go to one of the top universities in the US and be studying abroad across the world? Even I did not see this (I dreamt it…), the only one who saw this was my mom, and for that I thank her; I owe her everything for bringing me to this country. I also thank my teachers at Durfee for putting up with my ignorant antics, I thank the US government for making it possible for me to study at my dream university—which also happens to be one of the most expensive in the country —and I thank the scholarships that have helped make my study abroad in Istanbul possible: first and foremost, the Gilman International Scholarship, the Turkish Coalition of America and of course the George Washington University’s Office of Study Abroad. I could not be where I am today without these people/institutions.

Now that you know my life story, I will introduce you to Istanbul, Turkey.  Istanbul was known as Constantinople and was the capital of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire and the Ottoman Empire. It was the center of trade between Europe and Asia, where ideas and ideologies flourished as a result of trade and the mixing of cultures. Today Turkey is a predominantly Muslim country. It also has a secular democratic government—though many locals seem to debate that—with a President, a Prime Minister, a parliament and an establishment of the rule of law. While there is diversity in Istanbul, it does not amount to the diversity in the US. Istanbul’s population is around 13 million, nearing 14 million. It is one of the largest cities in the world; therefore it is very urban and, to a certain extent, liberal. I have been here for two weeks and I have noticed things that I will detail in later articles (believe me I could go on for days) but for now please enjoy these pictures and their descriptions, as this introductory article is already long. I hope I have spiked some interest in you and I hope you return to read more articles. Feel free to email me with any questions, suggestions, etc., at na9210@gwmail.gwu.edu

 
I have this amazing view of the Bosporus Strait. My university, Bogazici University, is right in front of the Strait. Ayasofya was once a church turned mosque by the Ottoman Empire. The Arabic scriptures depict the names of important figures in Islam.   
 

My favorite photo so far along my trip. The Sultanahmet, or Blue Mosque, is one of the most important places of Fatih (Old Istanbul). 

One of the many courtyards of Topkapi Palace, where the emperial families lived and conducted their government business. 

 

 
 
3/11/13
 
People always ask me if Turkey is different. Honestly, what would you expect? It’s not Saudi Arabia but it’s definitely not the US. Life here is very different from my life in DC. For example, the transportation system in Istanbul is amazing—we have the Metro, the Tramvay, the Cableway, and various bus lines and ferries. Yet, while it is amazing, the quality of your experience will vary, I know I always find myself remembering the “correct” way to get on a bus in America. I put correct in quotations because in cross-cultural studies I have found what is true and correct to be relative. Nevertheless, the variety in public transportation options is one of the many differences I have noted during my time here. I will go into greater detail in the coming paragraphs.

 

As an international relations geek, I have always read about the power of US influences abroad. I had never really experienced it until my flight out of the country. I was not expecting so many people to speak English. Of course, this can also be attributed to the British since they influenced countries around the globe before the US did, but still I found it amazing. In the US many government-related signs are translated into the dominant-minority group language in the area but here even restaurants have their menus in English. What I find more astounding is the fact that these English-written object not only help Americans, Australians and Brits, they also help out the French, the Spanish, the Russians, the Germans, the Polish, the Japanese, etc., because they all have studied English! Absolutely fascinating but very annoying if you are trying to practice your Turkish, which I’m just beginning by the way. Additionally, the number of American chain restaurants here is astounding. You can always expect McDonald’s and maybe even Burger King (preferred over McD’s here) but the amount of Domino’s, PF Chang’s, Starbucks and Little Caesar’s took me by surprise. It’s astounding how influential the US actually is.

 

Though I live in DC, I don’t drive to class or work, I use the Metro. However, I have driven in New York City and Los Angeles but believe me when I say that you cannot compare driving in those to cities to driving in Istanbul (and perhaps all of Turkey). Driving here is insane! I have no idea how many accidents per year happen here but it definitely must be more than in the US. If not, then that is just embarrassing because drivers here have no regard for traffic laws. Not the taxi drivers, not the bus drivers, not the school bus drivers—they all pull the same crazy stunts—merging into each others’ lanes without much warning, driving on the wrong side of the road at times just to pass other vehicles and

pretty much disregarding anything remotely representative of pedestrian rights. Upon my arrival, I took a cab from the airport to my school, not imagining the horrors of driving in Turkey. Granted, traffic here is ridiculous (really puts NYC and LA traffic to shame), but to drive the way they drive here is completely

irrational not only to me, but my friends from Europe too. At first I was scared of getting on any type of vehicle here, now I would say I look forward to it. Not only are taxi drivers here super fun after a night of dancing, but the ride itself is just exciting. Think of it somewhat like how you or your brother drives in Grand Theft Auto, only with much less loss of life—it’s pretty awesome.

 

Perhaps one of the most interesting and notable differences for me are men-women interchanges in public. I enjoy decrypting body language and people-watching is one of the best ways to

practice this science. Though I am Latina and I have experience with the male deficiency we call “machismo” (exaggerated masculinity, domination over women, etc.) I’m prepared to say it is not as obvious/visible in US society, whereas here it’s pretty much in your face from time to time. (I should say that Istanbul is a fairly liberal city—meaning women can walk around on their own, though it’s generally not recommended, and they do not have to veil or cover themselves from head to toe amongst other

things). For instance, I was on a tour in Old City Istanbul with a Turkish girl from Germany, a Swedish girl and an Iranian man. Our Iranian friend had parted to meet up with his American friend and the girls and I were walking into Topkapi Palace. Though it is not often that people in Fall River see women walking in burqas, it is not uncommon to see it in DC. If it is not uncommon in DC, it is fair to say that it is more prevalent in an actual Muslim country. Therefore, it’s no news to me what women in burqas look like, so

there would be no need for me to stare. My Turkish friend was talking about male dominance in Turkey and how much she detested it. I confessed to her that I had not really seen any yet but that I had noted women and men do not tend to mix in public places unless it was absolutely necessary. She started telling me a story of an incident she had with a 13-year old boy and though I was listening, I was not making eye contact with her. Instead, I was looking at my surroundings, which I do a lot as many of my

friends would instantly tell you. Anyhow, my eyes grazed by this woman holding her partner’s hand as she walked in the opposite direction from me. She was wearing a burqa, but like I said, why do I need to stare? There is really nothing special about the burqa, so instead I fixed my eyesight on something else which just happened to be close to her. The man let go of the woman’s hand and covered the only thing you could see from her face—her eyes—as they walked past us. As soon as they passed us my Turkish

friend yelled “See! That’s exactly what I’m talking about! Did you see that?”And that’s when I saw what she saw. This man did not even want us to look at his partner’s eyes. It was one of the most peculiar things I had ever seen. Then on my return to campus, it happened again, another man not wanting me near his partner. In my culture you see this between guys, but between girls just felt so different to me. Many people feel inclined to blame it on religion but I feel inclined to see it as a cultural phenomenon more than anything. After all, most Latin men are Catholic/Christian and they suffer from the same symptoms as traditional Turkish men. I just cannot believe it happened in this way.

 

I will continue writing on topics like these as I seek to encourage you to study abroad. This Thursday marks a month since my arrival in Turkey and though I have experienced many things already, I am barely beginning my trip. There are many more new things to come, some bad and some good, but still a new experience nonetheless. In the end, what will set me apart from so many other people are the things I have overcome and experienced in life. The language barrier, the crazy driving and female subjugation are just a few examples of things I have to adjust to whilst here. The language barrier I have learned to embrace, I know it serves as a force for me to learn Turkish. I have gotten pretty comfortable with the crazy driving and now look forward to it, though many friends here do not. The female

subjugation is something I will never agree with, something I will never truly accept as part of my persona, but whilst here I cannot join an extreme-feminist camp. I just embrace it as part of the culture, anything in order to avoid drawing attention to myself. All in all, I can admit that Istanbul is growing on me. With all its differences from life in the US, I know I will miss it someday in the future. 

 

Again, feel free to email me at na9210@gwmail.gwu.edu. Enjoy the pictures!

 
                                           The entrance of Topkapi Place Holding the Egyptian Obelisk in Old City Istanbul.
Metrobus lanes (the middle lanes) travel East-West in Istanbul, completely avoiding traffic because they
have their own special lanes no other cars apart from emergency vehicles) are allowed to use.
One of the many ferries that go from European Istanbul to Asian Istanbul and around the Bosphorus for
tours.

 

March 12, 2013

I have officially been here for a month and two days. It’s amazing to me how quickly time is flying, I have 3 more months left and I am already dreading my departure. I am learning way too much for my own good, I’m slowly falling in love with Istanbul. I have even been considering new career opportunities here—I would have never imagined this to happen! All the exchange students are trying to pack in as much traveling as possible. A lot of people want to visit Spain, France, Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands; while I want to visit Egypt, Lebanon, the West Bank, the UAE, etc. I obviously want to visit Europe, I would really love to go to Madrid and Marseilles, but I would rather go to the Middle East first. Everyone is rushing to make plans and rightly so, airfare prices will continue to rise the longer we wait. The downside is that people don’t want to travel alone and people don’t want to make commitments as to where they’re going (AKA they want to wait until the last minute, which I absolutely detest doing). I wouldn’t mind going to Europe by myself, I can get by with French and Spanish, but the Middle East is a different story. I am still going, by all means necessary. I am also planning to visit Southeastern Turkey, where it is recommended we don’t go, but I will be going with a Turkish friend whose family lives there. As long as I stay with them, I should not run into any trouble. These are my travel plans; hopefully I can accomplish a lot by spending the least amount of money as possible. These scholarships encourage that I travel and throw myself full-throttle into different aspects of living in Turkey, but that does not mean I can go all-out. It is just as essential to manage money wisely as it is time.

 

 
March 29, 2013
I apologize for not writing these past two weeks. Since I have classes during the week I reserve my traveling for the weekend. It turns out the weekend of 15 March I traveled to the center of the Anatolian Plateau with some friends from the program and then last weekend, the weekend of March  22 I went to Egypt. I will write about both trips starting with the one on March 14. The city is called Kapadokya and is famous for its rock formations. The drive there was about 12 hours but it was worth it: the highlight for me being the rock climbing and riding into the mountains on motorbikes and quads. It was amazing! Kapadokya was very different from Istanbul.
 
For starters, it has a mountain climate whereas Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate. Though that may not mean much to you, it means a lot to me—basically very different climates (temperatures and rainfall) though it is still in Turkey. While many of us expected it to be cold because of the altitudes we were to be at, it was actually pretty nice weather. Friday and Saturday were probably high sixties, low to mid seventies. Yet it hailed on the last day so I guess that’s mountain weather for you. Oddly enough Istanbul had rain and snow that weekend, which is not something that happens often (at least not the snow). Secondly, though we expected Kapadokya not to be as modern as Istanbul, I don’t think many of us were expecting not to have wi-fi at the hotel. The hotel looked amazing online but when we arrived we realized that it wasn’t all that great. I remember there being a party at this lounge in the hotel and the sound system was horrendous. It didn’t matter much to me, I wasn’t really in the mood for partying- walking and being an adventurous child totally drained me. Kapadokya was also more conservative than Istanbul but that was expected. Though the city is notorious for tourists, there weren’t many bars or clubs around. Liquor stores were very small, limited and hidden from view and men dominated the area at nighttime. Additionally, the food there wasn’t as great as the food in Istanbul, which saddened me. In some areas, there were no restaurants, just small convenience shops. At one point, some friends and I had to go to one shop so buy bread and another shop to add the cheese and have them toast it for us. Needless to say, we were starving and got full off of a huge grilled cheese sandwich. The region is very arid but it almost felt like I was in a desert; my hair always had sand in it, my face was always dirty and I rode my first camel there. The camel ride was awesome except for the part where the camel owner tried to rip me off, but that was taken care of! 
 
I still can’t believe I went to Egypt. I went to Cairo to visit one of my friends that is studying abroad there. I found it amazing that even Egyptians thought I was Egyptian, too bad I don’t speak Arabic! My friend introduced me to some of her Egyptian friends, which brings me to my first point: Egyptian hospitality is like none other. I’m not a hundred percent certain if it was just her friends that are absolutely amazing or Egyptians all together. They were incredibly warm, welcoming, kind and generous. They insisted it was in their culture to pay for everything, which I felt weird about because I had exchanged some dollars into Egyptian pounds and let me just say, I had to find a way to get rid of all of it, but not only that, I’m just not used to someone buying me everything. When I tried to repay them they became upset, not too seriously, but they wouldn’t accept any of my money. They insisted they were doing this as a sign of our friendship. God bless them. They have really made an impact on me in such a short amount of time.
 
Something I wasn’t used to was the way men and women interacted. According to their religion, men and women aren’t supposed to touch unless they are engaged or married. Of course, this is interpreted differently from culture to culture, but in Istanbul it was not uncommon to see teenagers holding hands, hugging, kissing, play fighting, etc. During my time in Cairo I realized that though men and women spoke to one another, they never touched, unless it was to greet one another, in which case they shook hands. Then again, I only saw young people do this, so not everyone finds it okay for men and women to shake hands—interpretations vary, not just in Egypt but everywhere. Another difference between Istanbul and Cairo is the way women dress. Most girls are hijabi in Cairo (they wear the hijab) but they dress very fashionable. I saw hijabi girls in tight short dresses with pants/jeans underneath and heels on the metro and in the streets. Again, this was mostly young women and that is not to say that all young women dress like this. On the other hand, Istanbul has a lot of women that don’t veil. I don’t know the statistics but I feel like I see more women unveiled than veiled. Nevertheless, hijabi women here tend to wear long coats, even when it’s fairly warm out. Many of them wear things that make their figure undistinguishable whereas in Cairo there were no doubt in people’s minds about certain young women’s curves. I found this very interesting because I expected it to be the opposite way around before I came to Istanbul, known to be very liberal, and went to Cairo.
 
I don’t know why I had this idea that Cairo would be similar to Istanbul: maybe because it is the only “foreign” thing I can actually compare it to. Regardless, I was shocked to find how unclean and poor Cairo is. It’s ridiculous, I have studied Egypt, I knew how poor it is, I’m especially not ignorant to the current political situation, but I completely overlooked all that and expected a smaller Istanbul, perhaps a little less wealthy but still modern nonetheless. I was wrong. Life in Cairo is very unsanitary. The streets are sometimes full of sewer water and people walk over it as if it weren’t a problem. There is trash everywhere on the floor. Even in tourist areas there is trash everywhere! Garbage collectors apparently just collect the trash and leave it in the street. There are cats and dogs everywhere, which I don’t normally mind since that is the case in Puerto Rico and in Istanbul too, but I had been warned that Egypt does not have rabies shots and that a friend of my friend’s had to get sent to Israel to deal with rabies after he had been bitten by a dog. The Nile River (which I stayed right across from) apparently contains flesh-eating bacteria (at least some parts do) due to its contamination. That bothered me a lot. The government should do something to improve living standards in Cairo but the government is still in turmoil. I nearly missed a protest that escalated into violence fairly quickly (March 23, 2013), which I would have loved to see by the way. I sometimes felt like the government wasn’t even a government, because what type of government would continue to let people live in that horrible air quality, what kind of government would let the Nile become so contaminated that it grew flesh-eating bacteria? The police basically can’t do anything; while I was there they weren’t even able to carry guns. I felt unsafe a lot, not only because women are treated as men’s subordinates and that is unbeatable but also because the police aren’t even an option for protection of both men and women. Believe me, I can go on and on about politics, but I’ll spare you your personal life and maybe talk about it in a future article. Lastly, I of course went to see the pyramids and it was surreal! I still can’t believe I was there! I have amazing photos that I’ll share with you now.

 

   
   
The view of Cairo from the Nile River.
Many areas are covered with graffiti containing political or religious messages.
   
The sphynx of Giza The pyramid of Giza