“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
Last week, I returned from my first travel abroad experience with my wife Hannah. As part of our long-overdue honeymoon vacation, we embarked on a two week Mediterranean cruise. This was a very rare treat for us, since it took nearly three years (and most of our wedding donations) to save up for it. During our trip, we briefly visited places like Venice, Istanbul, Athens, Pompeii, Rome, Florence, and Barcelona. Needless to say, our excursions to the Blue Mosque, the Acropolis, and the Colosseum (among many others), were fantastic and allowed me the opportunity to finally view the places I've known for so long in my studies. But this post isn't written to brag about how awesome everything was (though there is a little of that), this is an attempt to share a couple of reflections (both good and bad) I had while finally visiting a small part of the Middle East.
My favorite place was, of course, Istanbul. We only had about nine hours in Istanbul, but I feel like I could spend months in the city and still not fully experience its rich cultural and historical sites. Like the Hagia Sophia (which was once a church, then a mosque, and is now a museum), Istanbul represents an eclectic mix of cultures all interacting with one another. It was truly a treat to see such a great example of different people coexisting together. Unfortunately, Istanbul has had a bad reputation lately due to its proximity to Syria and ISIS. I (along with our tour guide, who actually turned out to be Jewish) spent far too much time on the trip trying to explain to people why they weren't going to get blown up or abducted just because they were going to a predominantly Muslim city. I visited mosques and museums, dined on grape leaves and apple tea, and even haggled for some exotic spices. In all, as the muezzin issued the evening call to prayer on our way out of the city, I was elated to have had this small taste of life in the Middle East.
One of the only things I didn't care for was the lifestyle presented on the ship itself. Lavish buffets, string quartets, and even a jewelry store (featuring several items for only $1,000!) were all designed to part fools from their money and allow the wealthy to pretend that sadness doesn't exist in the world. To me, the most ridiculous event was a "champagne waterfall" where over 700 glasses were stacked in a pyramid shape, and then cheap (though really expensive looking) champagne was poured from the top to fill the glasses below. People loved it. I wondered how many times that gimmick has come crashing down in a waterfall of hubris when the ship hit an unexpected wave. But of course, these types of events aren't really geared towards a young honeymooning couple anyway.
Throughout the cruise, I would often return to the balcony of our stateroom (we got a free upgrade from our cheap interior cabin) and marvel at the beauty and serenity of the Mediterranean. However, I could never shake the feeling that while I was casually enjoying the peaceful blue waters of the sea, others were almost certainly starving and drowning in those same waters. Where I saw a majestic and seemingly endless expanse of maritime luxury, others saw a deadly and seemingly endless obstacle to their escape from poverty and persecution. I felt somewhat better upon learning that this same ship had rescued a group of distressed Syrians on the sea during its previous voyage. However, they were immediately dropped off at the next port of call (which happened to be Greece) to become the problem of the local port authorities instead. Still, at least the ship had helped.
My depressing pessimism aside, this truly was the trip of a lifetime. It was a wonderful experience and I am reminded how fortunate I am to have had such opportunities so easily within my reach. I know that such a short visit doesn't really endow me with any special knowledge or experience of the region. These types of short visits are all about manufactured experiences, where people are herded along like cattle to gawk at the "mysteries of the Orient" while staying far enough away from any real mysteries so they don't feel too uncomfortable. It was Orientalism at its finest. I also won't pretend that after only nine hours in Istanbul, I suddenly understand what life is like for a kid growing up in a poor suburb of Amman, or that I can personally identify with a street vendor just because one tried to sell me a fake Rolex. But despite my critique of the ship's primary clientele, at least the people on this trip cared enough to see these places and learn their histories. And though I returned from my travels knowing about as much as I did before, at least I can stay that, for a short time, I was there.
Tl;DR: Go see the world!