Smack me upside the head with a big stick

Tourists gather to photograph the sunrise on Mount Nemrut, Turkey
Tourists gather to photograph the sunrise on Mount Nemrut | Photo by Lauren Girardin

You make certain trade-offs when you go on an organized tour, such as the one that Todd and I took to the hard-to-reach Mount Nemrut and some other areas in central Turkey. In exchange for the luxury of a mindless three days free of decision making, you’re beholden to the tour schedule. You can only hope that the skies will be clear, your bowels will be in perfect working order, and that your tour companions will be interesting.

Although “interesting” may not be a quality to hope for in people you’re stuck with for days on end.

Since the tour we’re on was the only tour in town, we’re in a van with twenty people that are a grab bag of the good, the bad, and the ugly types of tourist. If I was ever to write a novel, the people on the Mount Nemrut tour have given me a range of characters I couldn’t have made up.

Holy carp - Sanliurfa, Turkey
Holy carp in Sanliurfa | Photo by Lauren Girardin

There’s the Gen X’er from New Hampshire, a state where as our friend Jake from Vermont, the sworn enemy of New Hampshire, puts it: “people wear sweatpants all day.” We’ll call this man Ernest* since he truly embodies the Hemingway quote: “Some other places were not so good, but maybe we were not so good when we were in them.”

Ernest is not so good on this tour, and from what I overhear from the same one-sided conversation he relentlessly strikes up with each person in the van, he was not so good during his recent travels through Eastern Europe either. Looking for a romantic encounter of the dead-language variety, he was instead bewildered and embittered by the unfriendliness of the people he met. Truly lost, only his mother’s advice not to quit kept him from returning to the States and moving back in with her.

Then, there’s Lady Holiday*, a pucker-mouthed middle-aged woman from the suburbs of London who, unsatisfied with the pistachios we picked fresh from an orchard, later triumphantly returns with a sack of “proper pistachios” bought from a rest stop.

As I’m talking with an Australian woman about the environmental headway being made in our countries, I notice Lady Holiday out of the corner of my eye, practically twitching because she’s so anxious to interject.

Unable to hold back any longer, Lady Holiday leans in and opens up. She is so negative that even I – a confessed cynic – think she’s seriously lost her happy place. She rants about the high fines imposed by the British government for not recycling and the complete lack of any environmental progress in the last 30 years. Pounding her fist into her hand, Lady Holiday ends her tirade by spitting out “It’s unreasonable. The government does nothing with the money. No progress. None! Just penalty for penalty’s sake. It’s all stick! Stick!! STICK!!!”

Purple scarves on display - Sanilurfa, Turkey
Purple scarves on display in Sanliurfa | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Finally, there’s three study-abroad college girls who refuse to step inside Halilur Rahman Camii, the holy mosque in the cave where the prophet Abraham is believed to have been born, because they would have to cover their bodies and hair.

The most vocal and worst dressed of the three, Jezebel*, flaunts fluorescent pink bra straps and a tight white tank top. She refuses our tour guide’s offer of a jacket and scarf, saying “It’s not my religion. I shouldn’t have to compromise my beliefs just to go inside.”

Marilyn – a spunky, self-aware, and world-wise Canadian who lives large by adhering to many mottoes, including “there is nothing to fear but fear itself” – has held her tongue as the girls walked around the streets of the religiously and socially conservative town of Sanliurfa in revealing clothes, figuring it was the tour guide’s problem.

But now, Marilyn’s had enough, so she tells Jezebel what we’ve all been thinking: “Don’t travel to places where you can’t show respect for people’s culture. You make it harder for the rest of us. Maybe you shouldn’t have come here.”

Broken mannequin and friend - Sanilurfa, Turkey
Muslim fashion mannequins in Sanliurfa | Photo by Lauren Girardin

That settled, I cover up, remove my boots, and along with Marilyn and another woman from the tour, join the mob of Muslim women shoving their way into the small entrance of Halilur Rahman Camii. I emerge from the body-filled hallway into a long, narrow room where the air is filled with the acrid smell of sweaty polyester, the dampness from the water flooding Abraham’s cave, and the cacophony of both muttered and shouted prayers bouncing off the stone walls.

As one of only three Westerners inside the mosque, I feel a jarring sensation of simultaneously being both inside and outside a place. It’s so unfamiliar it quickly becomes uninviting – though I appreciate that it’s an honor to be allowed in at all, I don’t belong here and I don’t want to either.

But, then again, I don’t feel like I belong in the van full of tourists.

* Names changed to protect the googleable.