Life Lessons from Turkey – meltdown in an Istanbul alley

“Oh s**t! That evil carpet salesman ripped me off!” I thought to myself as the tears started to flow. After a sleepless night on a bus ride from hell, I was just too tired to stop them. I wandered slowly through the Istanbul alley, and plopped down on a low brick wall, sobbing uncontrollably. Melting down. Then the Old Man with the kind eyes approached…

I visited Turkey a few years before 9/11 changed the world forever and arrived in the country with few expectations other than feeling slightly nervous about the people, believing I needed to be very cautious. This was a Muslim country, after all, and a tall blonde American woman did not blend in very well. So I was cautious at first, careful not to trust anyone, careful not to let my guard down and end up in a Turkish prison like in that old movie, “Midnight Express”.

Cautiously trusting…

Wandering through the country, I often seemed to find myself standing on a street corner with my pack on my back, Lonely Planet guide in my hand, and a very confused look on my face. Within moments, total strangers would stop to help even if they spoke little English. And I slowly began to accept that the Turks were not the evil people I had feared and I gradually opened up and got to know them. I felt safe and finally relaxed into the country and embraced the culture.

The beauty and magic of Turkey unfolded slowly over the following weeks…

I drank apple tea from the vendors near the Blue Mosque.

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I soaked in the thermal pools of Pamukkale.

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And I soaked up the fascinating biblical history of Ephesus.

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Cautiously Shopping…

I also discovered a passion for carpet shopping, which became my favorite hobby while traveling in Turkey. The carpet salesmen rolled out carpet after carpet, stacking them in the center of the store while entertaining me with their stories and serving delicious apple tea. No pressure to buy, no sneaky sales tactics – they simply loved to share their passion for carpets. And I loved their tea and got lost in their stories.

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The one I almost bought.

One carpet man, his shop located in an old building once used as a rest stop for camels along an ancient trading route, served wine instead of apple tea. He was a very wise man and after a few glasses of his wine I fell in love with the blue and mauve one while my credit card screamed from inside my purse. My will was weakened by the wine, yet I somehow managed to resist the temptation.

The following day I saw it – the one I just had to have. It was 40 years old, a Kurdish design, and came with a certificate authenticating its birthplace and its history. We were in love and I was sold!

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The magic carpet.

The shop was located in Selcuk, a small village along the Mediterranean coast. Since I still had a few weeks of traveling ahead of me, the Carpet Man kindly offered to ship it to a shop in Istanbul so I could pick it up at the end of my trip. I agreed, paid the man $500, and walked out of the shop with nothing more than a handwritten receipt and an Istanbul address scribbled on a piece of paper. (A little naive maybe?)

Finally Returning…

A few weeks later, I returned to Istanbul the day before my flight back to “reality”. Since the carpet purchase had totally blown my budget, I opted for the budget-friendly overnight bus back to Istanbul and endured a totally sleepless night on bus ride from hell. Arriving in Istanbul exhausted early the next morning, I dumped my backpack at a cheap, scummy hotel and went in search of my beautiful new magic carpet.

An hour later, I finally found the street matching the address scribbled on the scrap of paper, more of a side alley than an actual street…and there was not a carpet shop in sight!  Panic began to set in as I paced up and down the alley. I double-checked the address and found nothing that even remotely resembled a carpet shop.

Hysterically Sobbing…

Fear and paranoia took over –  “Oh s**t! That evil carpet salesman ripped me off!” I thought to myself as the tears started to flow. After a sleepless night on a bus ride from hell, I was just too tired to stop them. I wandered slowly through the Istanbul alley, and plopped down on a low brick wall, sobbing uncontrollably. Melting down.

Moments later the Old Man with kind eyes approached. He spoke no English but his eyes showed his concern – he knew I was in serious trouble and desperately wanted to help. In between sobs, I tried to explain my problem and showed him the address on the scrap of paper. “Carpet shop” was all I could say.

Communication issues…

He led me down the alley and I followed him into a car dealership. Obviously there was a communication problem here, I didn’t need a car. I needed my beautiful, expensive, CAR-PET! The one I had paid a total stranger $500 for! The one I couldn’t afford but bought it anyway because it was True Love! Not a CAR! A CAR-PET!

We were greeted by a dark man, handsome with that slick “Used-Car-Dealer” kind of vibe, the kind of guy you probably shouldn’t buy a used car from. The Old Man showed Slick Guy the note and he started to smile. He slipped into the back room and a moment later returned… carrying my beautiful magic carpet!!!  I sobbed harder and wrapped him in a huge hug!

Slick Guy, in his nearly perfect English, explained that his brother was the Carpet Guy in Selcuk and that he had been expecting me. He asked me to sit and made some apple tea for me and the Old Man with the kind eyes, telling me “The Old Man felt so bad about your tears he almost started crying and felt so horrible that he couldn’t speak English!”.

I stayed for a while, sipping apple tea and talking to him about his life in Turkey, a life so totally different from my life, a million miles away in Hawaii. Although we came from different lives, in that moment we weren’t so different – we weren’t “American” or “Turkish” or “Muslim” or “Christian”. Labels didn’t matter, and they still don’t. Or at least they shouldn’t. And this experience, this life lesson in an Istanbul alley, finally proved to me that Turkish people (Muslims) truly are kind and generous people and should not be feared.

Almost twenty years later, I still have that magic carpet and it’s moved with me to Taiwan. We’ve been through a lot of life changes together and we’re still in love!


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2 Replies to “Life Lessons from Turkey – meltdown in an Istanbul alley”

  1. So so glad you weren’t ripped off after all! Istanbul is truly a beautiful place with kind people. And they still offer apple tea to strangers everytime!

    1. I really loved Istanbul – beautiful city with amazing history. And the people really were wonderful! Hope to go back again someday soon!

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