Ah, travel. One of social media’s most featured guests. Is it even possible to scroll through your feed without finding travel-themed/motivational sayings with a sunset backdrop? ‘Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote’, ‘We travel not to escape life, but for life to escape us’, wanderlust definitions, and the list goes on…
Now, I’ve always wanted to travel, but haven’t been able to make it happen. As a Palestinian-Australian, the first half of that identity almost always implies a nomadic lifestyle (if you’re not too sure what I’m talking about, look up ‘Israeli occupation of Palestine’), but more so for survival reasons than leisure and self-growth. It’s quite uncommon for an Arab to take a year to travel and ‘discover themselves’. While that notion definitely has merit, I viewed my academic journey as more of a priority and focused on furthering it.
Fast forward a few years, with 3 degrees and a budding career brewing, I was ready to embark on my first travel experience that did not involve Australia or the Middle East (the destinations of all my previous trips). After mulling over it, I decided I wanted to experience Europe but also head somewhere where I could somewhat relate to the culture and the people. Where would I ever find a perfect fusion of Asia and Europe? The answer was clear: Turkey.
After a journey that lasted over 24 hours (I love you ‘Straya but do you have to be so far from everything?!), my mum and I (I know, adorable) had landed in Istanbul and were heading out of the airport ready to start our adventure. I was pumped. Nothing could possibly ruin my two-week holiday in such a beautiful place, right? Wrong. Almost as soon as I went through the airport exit doors, I felt all my preconceived ideas and my perfect picture of how this trip would pan out melt away.
Just outside the door, there was a queue of taxis ready to take tourists to hotels and locals to their homes. It was all very convenient, except for the fact that none of the drivers we approached spoke a word of English. Ever tried using miming exclusively as a form of communication? Fairly tricky! I used my phone to show the driver the name of our hotel several times before he knew where to go. I was already feeling lost. He spent a significant part of the trip repeating the same words in Turkish over and over again like we’d magically develop fluency following this technique. Now I had been working on developing my language skills before our trip, but they were at a beginner’s level at best, so his efforts were close to futile. He then tapped the screen showing how much we owed and said ‘extra’ and the word ‘bags’ in Turkish. He wanted extra money for carrying our luggage and putting it in the boot. I didn’t know how to say ‘seriously dude? I carried half of them myself!’ so I just went with the Turkish word for ‘okay’.
By the time we got to the hotel room after I managed to explain ‘check in’ to the receptionist, I was spent. Even though all I wanted to do was sleep, I lay in bed thinking about how helpless and vulnerable I felt in a foreign place. I couldn’t manage 90% of the local language and if I got sick or lost or needed help, I would have no idea what to say or how to explain it. For the first time in my life, I was feeling like a total outsider.
You might be thinking that it’s very naïve to be surprised at feeling foreign when you’re travelling. After all, isn’t that the whole point of travel? But you have to remember, this was my first ever experience in a country where I didn’t speak the language fluently. It was all novel. It seemed like the minute I was taken out of my usual, comfortable surroundings, I lost control and felt inferior. And it got me thinking: what makes us us? Is it our ability to speak a language? Relate to a culture? The fact that we grew up in a certain place?
During the three days following our arrival, we did a lot of touristy things and spent a lot of time sightseeing. I noticed that when I was around other tourists who spoke English or Arabic during a tour or at a site, I felt at home again. I could express myself, and it felt familiar and comfortable. I was beginning to enjoy the trip. But there were many times when a local would approach me thinking I was Turkish, and I’d have to resort to explaining in English that I wasn’t and that I didn’t speak the language. To add to the identity crisis, locals did not accept ‘Australia’ as a satisfactory answer to ‘where are you from?’ and it would almost always be followed by ‘but originally?’ This is not new at all, because I always get asked that in Australia when I meet new people, but what was interesting was that Turkish people appeared to be far more interested in the fact that I was Palestinian than Australian. Australia would only get a ‘oh! So far away!’ but Palestine always got ‘oh! We love Palestine! Your country is our country’. They constantly felt a need to express their support even if it was through broken English or Arabic. I was amazed. The fact that we were bonding over cultural similarities when we couldn’t string more than two sentences in each other’s languages reminded me of why I picked Turkey as a destination in the first place.
Towards the end of our trip, when we’d finished up all our touristy activities and were beginning to live like locals to a certain degree, I noticed I was starting to enjoy even the little things. While it was dreaded for the first few days of our stay, the thought of approaching street vendors to buy some roasted chestnuts or a corn cob felt pleasant and provided a sense of comradery. I was no longer avoiding interactions or shying away from using my limited Turkish vocabulary for fear of sounding foreign. When I successfully communicated that I wanted my cob without salt, it felt like a significant achievement that left me pleased afterwards. Exchanging brief pleasantries was coming quite easily and it didn’t feel too silly to use gestures to communicate advanced words anymore. Slowly, I was feeling like I belonged. Not quite as lost or helpless.
On the morning of our flight home, I was feeling devastated. I did not want to leave at all. What had changed? The locals still barely spoke any English, and I still barely spoke any Turkish! I was looking outside the hotel room window reflecting and the conclusion materialised: I was morphing. I had changed over the course of the trip. What used to bring me feelings of discomfort and isolation became familiar, and the exposure provided me with small realisations of how much I had in common with a population that lived thousands of miles away from me. As cliché as it sounds, I had grown.
I realised that the lessons I learnt over the two weeks did not evaporate after I came back home, but that they changed little things about me. I take the time to try as hard as possible to explain directions in a simple and clear way to an international student who’s lost on the confusing streets of Melbourne – I now know how difficult it is to ask when you don’t know how. I take more interest in those who are visiting from another country, asking about their experience in Australia and trying to make them feel welcome – I now know that being welcomed and feeling valued can change your whole outlook on an experience. In my case, an experience that had changed my personality in small but tangible ways.
And to answer my earlier question, I discovered that it’s an accumulation of everything that forms my identity. Not just where I was born, where I live, what culture I relate to or what language I speak, but the fleeting moments that challenge me and ultimately shape my character.
And as to the verdict on travel, I’ve only got one valid experience to go off, but would I do it again?
As my friends the Turks would say, kesinlikle!
This piece was written by Mais Hussein.