Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 September 2008
Issue No. 913
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Air that burns

Alaa Abdel-Ghani returns from Antalya red in the face

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The cascading Duden cataracts and waterfalls are as much a part of Antalya as the city's famed coastline with the imposing Taurus Mountains overhead. The resort, as is all of Turkey, is also known for its poor English, as the tell-tale sign reveals photos: Alaa Abdel-Ghani

Going on summer vacation in a country hotter than yours is not the smartest thing to do. But that's what my family and I did when we ventured to Turkey, to Antaqya, (over there they call it Antalya).

Antalya in August is an oven with the heat turned up high for making pizza. It's the kind of roast that can cinder eyelashes, sear your glasses to the bridge of your nose, and prevent you from breathing properly. It's hotter than Cairo and much more humid. The heat is oppressive, the sun relentless, pounding atop your head every second of the day. There is no let up, not even on one evening when scary thunder bolts clamoured overhead, sheaths of lightning lit up the sky and below, and did it ever rain. We hoped the tumultuous evening would have a cooling effect the following day, but no such luck. By dawn, not a drop of water was to be seen, and the downpour had done nothing to change the status quo.

We never bothered to check exactly how hot Antalya is nor did we care to. All we could do was grin and bear it and sweat it out, so to speak.

The heat could easily have ruined the holiday from the outset, but on a trip in which you've shelled out a pretty penny, and one in which your loved ones -- comprised of my lovely shopping- loving wife Dina, two go-go-go teenagers and one getting there -- are depending on you to take them in a foreign environ here and there and all over the place, you just have to keep going and try not to drop dead.

Your travel agent will probably not let you in on the little secret that Antalya should be considered a winter resort -- it's not made for summer -- because that would naturally drive would-be summer tourists away.

We took the Egyptian charter flight Memphis, which unsurprisingly reminded me of another Egyptian charter, Flash Airlines, we took to Istanbul five years ago. Flash had only two planes at the time. One of them crashed in Sharm six months after our trip, killing scores of French tourists. We never found out, nor did we bother to ask, which plane crashed. But Memphis and its pilots made the one hour, 10-minute hop to Antalya safely and trouble-free.

Our arrival at our four-star Riviera Hotel was inauspicious. Going up to their room, three men and a baby got stuck in the elevator for what was for them an eternal 10 minutes before the elevator's doors were pried open.

Riviera suffered from a litany of other problems: weak room lighting, worn-out towels and insufficient bed covers.

Light bulbs in the staircase went off every 15 seconds, part of a national energy conservation plan (they can be brought back on by pressing on wall switches, but you could easily slip or trip because of the darkness. It is especially dangerous for children who run up and down all day on the carpet-less stairs with little wet feet produced by the beach and hotel pool).

The list continues: two euros a day for the use of a safe deposit box; a daily brusque check of the mini-bar to make sure nothing has been taken; at breakfast and dinner you must zealously guard your plate of food lest it be swept away by impatient waiters (we more than once suggested to these quick-handed men and women that the hotel buy more plates); and housekeeping which starts work at the unusual time of 4pm, just as we return from shopping or sightseeing, dead from dehydration and dying from exhaustion.

The sign on our door said we were in room 203 and where to go from there and what to do in case of fire. Great, but we were in room 201!

Back to conservation tactics again (to cite how serious the problem is, a litre of Antalya gas was said by our tour guide to cost LE17. It's LE1.75 in Egypt). Sometime between two and three in the morning, management would halt the functioning of the split air conditioning in the hotel's rooms in the hopes of saving some energy. You could, of course, get up and restart the AC but the hotel hoped you would keep snoring away and sleep through the heat.

To be fair, Riviera was placed in picture post- card perfection, right in front of the crystalline sea. Antalya on the Mediterranean looks very much like Alexandria on the Corniche or Sharm El-Sheikh alongside the Red Sea. They all share flat blue waters, the stunning views, the dozens of hotels, outdoor cafés and mini-markets that all coastal towns enjoy and prosper from. You might not know the difference save for Antalya's stony shores and those imposing, seemingly architecturally designed Taurus Mountains booming upwards on one side of the city.

August appears to be the national time-out in Antalya. At dawn, beach goers start their day and do not depart until long after the lights go out.

They park their cars in the hundreds in perfect harmony on the curb. It would be a goldmine for our monadeen (self-appointed car park attendants). But, a refreshing surprise, there was not a single monadi in sight.

We were part of an Egyptian group trip. While I do not really like to see Egyptians when I'm abroad (while going to work in Egypt, we have the honour of seeing all of our kind on the street, all 80 million of us, every day), this group was pleasant, especially the teenagers, many of whom spoke fluent English, a good omen for Egypt's future. One brave banker in the gathering who said he had two wives induced chuckles by arguing that since he couldn't take one wife on the trip and leave the other, nor could he take both, he decided to invite neither.

But the group was in the end made of Egyptians and that meant, for example, perennially starting our morning sightseeing bus tours late as we waited for the latecomers.

The first day's scheduled tour was to a Levis and Wrangler factory. Why, pray tell, would a jeans plant be a tourist destination? Is that supposed to be the first thing to see in Antalya? A subsequent visit to the Duden waterfalls and caves, and a tour of a leather factory -- seeing how world famous Turkey is for its leather -- was more like it.

We were then dropped downtown for lunch and shopping. You can buy almost anything you want in Turkey using liras, dollars or euros. A few years ago, the Turks deleted the six zeroes in their denomination, so that a bottle of water no longer costs one and a half million liras (a lira is worth roughly 90 US cents). The lira is broken down into 100 kurush.

After being one of the cheapest countries in Europe, Turkey has turned expensive. We estimated the increase at three times what was on our first trip to the country five years ago. In the meantime, the quality of their work is not what it used to be, again against our model of 2003.

What have not changed are the shop owners; as pushy as ever. You cannot walk past a store without its owner urging, more like pressuring you, to come in. Once inside the lion's den, he or she will stick to you like super glue. If you dare ask the price of something or worse, pick up an item to examine it in more detail, that means the deal is done as far as the shop owner is concerned. If you don't buy anything, that is the ultimate insult. It's very disconcerting and a real turn off, this way of conducting business, and it's a small wonder how Turkish shop owners do not seem to realise this.

The Turks are not above making a quick buck. A pack of Doritos on the beach costs three liras. But just cross the street and 50 metres away, the same size bag goes for 1.5 liras. Bargaining is a must. A 1,000 euro leather jacket was brought down to 250 euros by one of our group's bargain hunters. On two separate occasions on public buses, in which you are supposed to receive a ticket from the driver after paying your 1.5 liras, the driver gave us no such ticket, obviously to pocket the profit. Many times a handwritten sign indicating how much an item costs is annulled when, after you agree to the purchase, the shop owner suddenly announces that what you want to buy costs more than what is written.

The aggressive nature of the sales people is a correct reflection of the population at large. There's something rough-edged about people who live near the sea, as Antalyans do. Their characters are tough, their mannerisms gruff. They don't appear to like foreigners any more than many other populations, certainly not half as much as we Egyptians do.

But they can be nice to aliens. Once, we were given a cup of tea on the house while waiting for our shawerma sandwiches. It happened more than once that once we had made a purchase and parted with our money, the shop owner would bend down, place the cash on the floor, mutter something in his own words, then place the money in his pocket. It might look like a derogatory tradition but there is the logical explanation that in fact the shop owner was saying something to the effect that the new friendship he had just struck up was worth more than all the money in the world.

English, or the lack thereof, is a real problem. The locals just don't understand that for the 10 million tourists who descend on Antalya every year, English is extremely important for both sides. Most Turks can't even count from one to 10 in English. If you want to know how much something is, they will inevitably punch the number on their ubiquitous calculator and show you how much on the screen.

No English newspapers or magazines are sold in newsstands. On our hotel TV we had to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Turkish. Their TNT has US film actors speaking Turkish.

Our only savior was BBC in English while some Turkish channels presented Seinfeld and a few other American shows in English with Turkish subtitles.

The language barrier was highlighted when we tried to call Egypt from a phone central, or telekom. The operator had not the faintest clue about English, or what the code for Egypt was. In a telephone directory he dug up, Egypt was listed but under Misr. It said the code was 0020. Before making the call, Dina astutely pointed out that the number 2 was missing at the end.

They do have a few words like ours: afendim (excuse me?) and tamam (okay). Saat means time, tarih date. And a shopper's all-time favourite word, tanzilat (sale).

Stereotyping can be misleading, but it's only normal to compare your country with one you have visited, and that's what we did. The conclusion reached was that Antalyans and Turks in general are a quiet people who go about their daily lives without speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly as we do. Even the not so well-to-do appear at least on the surface satisfied with what life's cards have dealt them.

The streets and sidewalks are spanking clean. Pollution is unknown.

Their physiques are better than us. Rarely do you see fatsos, front or behind, male or female. Their men's forearms are particularly wide, which is why they always win an Olympic medal or two in wrestling and weightlifting.

Turks probably eat better, too. Having three growing children who live on junk food to exist (or do they exist to eat junk?), our kids many times prevented us from trying genuine home- cooked meals, but the famed Turkish delights provided incredible family joy.

They smoke a lot, as attested by the butts on the street and the myriad brands they sell. The irony is that Turkish TV censors will on occasion patch over an actor's cigarette in a scene, even though the wafting smoke is clearly visible.

In Turkey, you can cross the street from most anywhere, and when the light is red. But within the mayhem, there is order. Their traffic, composed of Turkish-built Opels, Renaults, Fiats and Citroens, is free flowing even in the narrowest of side streets. There is nothing resembling traffic jams. Their less than one million population fits comfortably into their 320-kilometre-long city.

Police keep a low profile. You hardly see them but because they have an internationally notoriously ruthless reputation, you know they cannot be too far and will come out of nowhere and spring into action whenever the need arises, which is not much.

Turkey is as secular as it gets. They have conveniently separated mosque and state, and have put Islam in one corner and their lifestyle somewhere else completely. One of the few signs we were in fact in a Muslim country was the cry of the azan by just one preacher in just one mosque in the back of the hotel. They don't conduct mass prayers in the street or in offices. There are no prayer halls in malls.

Hijab wearers are the minority, as few in number as the hijab-less in Egypt. They wear long rain-like coats and their scarves are tied loosely on their heads. On the beach, they mingle amiably with their bikini-clad sisters who on the streets wear the shortest of shorts and tiniest of mini-skirts.

It's a paradox not easily explained but one which Turks apparently smoothly accept and are comfortable with.

On our next to last day we went water rafting. The mountain stream on which we paddled was not nearly as untamed as The River Wild. However, the water, in which we took an impromptu dip, was ice cold, a welcome reprieve from the burning air.

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