(DISCLAIMER: This blog is not an official Fulbright Program blog; the views expressed are my own and not those of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.)

Friday, September 24, 2010

Learning the Culture: Adventures of 'Coffee Boy'

We travel for the experiences, and we like to see how the locals live.  However, I learn about local customs and norms when my "taken-for-granted" behavior contradicts some "taken-for-granted" norm in the host culture. By learning from my mistakes and faux pas I learn about the culture.  On the overnight bus, I had learning experiences from Coffee Boy.
   We booked a package tour  to Cappadocia, an overnight bus with a shuttle transfer from the travel agency, one night hotel, two days tours with all admissions, and meals.  We imagined ourselves with the "cruise line" crowd, but the shuttle picked up customers from all the backpacking hostels in the area.  We looked like the trip chaperones. 
  The overnight bus seems to be the preferred mode of transportation for locals.  The bus includes a movie, in Turkish starring B-list American actors (now I know what happened to Thomas Hayden Church's career), reclining seats, a drink and refreshment service.  Imagine a Greyhound bus without the ghetto.   Each bus has a steward responsible for the refreshment service, a young man about 15-16 years old that we called "Coffee Boy." In addition to coffee service, Coffee Boy also has responsibility for maintaining the fragile bonds of civilized order.
    After receiving our bedtime snack, we settled down to a night's sleep in a reclining bus seat.  During the night I shifted in my sleep and tucked my foot, with shoe on, under me in the seat. Coffee Boy alertly slapped my foot out of the seat to the ground.  They have a thing about shoes being unclean, and watching what was on the sidewalks gave me a good idea why.  Needless to say, having this violation of a social norm pointed out to me at 2:00 in the morning wasn't my best cultural learning moment.  And for the remainder of the trip, Coffee Boy ignored me with morning coffee and the morning towel.
   On the return trip I was resolved to learn from my cultural faux pas, so I took off my shoes after bedtime snack.  Uncomfortable in the night, I shifted sideways in my seat and placed my stocking feet in the aisle.  This Coffee Boy came the length of the bus to nudge my feet out of the aisle and proceeded to spray Febreeze on the aisle carpet for a meter on either side.  No problem with others' shoes that were in the aisle, my stocking foot was a threat to civilized society.
   So this time I was fully awake at 2:00, so I got off the bus during one of the many breaks at the Turkish bus lines equivalent of a truck stop, complete with waitresses with beehive hairdos (or maybe I was dreaming).  When I went to reboard, it was like an I Love Lucy show: I was confronted with a row of identical buses from the same bus company, all with Istanbul noted in the window.  The only way I knew to find the right bus was to find the bus with Nancy asleep about halfway back.  The first bus I tried had a few women in front, one clad in a black burka with only her eyes showing.  I don't know how many social norms I violated, but after I was halfway down the aisle the black burka lady came after me with loud threats and imprecations.  She was between me and the door, so I made the international sign for "Hey lady, I'm just a stupid tourist, i just want to leave!" (Two open palms up, and a nod at the door; no, I didn't flip her off.)
   Nancy used to feel sorry for the oppression of the burka ladies, but now she's decided that they can hold their own.

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