Friday, August 24, 2012

Trip To Istanbul.....Two Thumbs Up

I have always enjoyed traveling. Even when I was a small child I rememeber being as excited about seeing new terrain and locations as I was about the destination.

Just like my connection to the Ocean (   ), I also feel a connection to motion.

I can relate to "Ramblin' Fever" by Merle Haggard :

"My hat don't hang on the same nail too long.
My ears can't stand to hear the same old song.An' I don't leave the highway long enough,To bog down in the mud.'Cos I've got ramblin' fever in my blood"

Well I've either been wise or fortunate or both to end up with a career that not only allows travel but requires it. 
My career has taken me places and allowed me to experience things I never dreamed possible.
To a sensation junkie like myself, this job is perfect.

Well in addition to simply enjoying the sights and sounds of new places I also love learning about other cultures. Of course I travel to too many places to be able to have a full grasp of every single culture I pass, but I make it a point to understand at least a little. Learning other people's traditions and customs is very interesting to me but more importantly it shows the people you interact with that you value their culture. It shows that you do not place yourself on a pedestal above them. So even if all I learn of their language is "Thank you" and "You are welcome" they appreciate the effort. It is a symbolic gesture.

It is for this reason I have always fancied myself the liaison/diplomat of the group when we travel abroad.
Here's the story of how I failed my (self given) post.....BADLY:

In 2008, I travelled to the Middle East to do a USO tour for the United States military with my band the Ugli Stick. We were going to be going to many many countries so I had lots of culture studying to do.
During these studies I learned that in many Middle Eastern countries the gesture of giving a "Thumbs Up" was highly offensive. From what I read it is more offensive than giving someone the middle finger in America.

I found this odd, but thought , "Luckily, no one really runs the risk of offending the locals. Who gives thumbs ups?" I couldn't help but imagine the Fonz from Happy Days. I imagined scenarios in which each person in my group would do a Fonzie impersonation. They all seemed pretty far fetched. So I felt pretty secure that we wouldn't be causing any international troubles. However, I like to be safer rather than sorrier.

So before we were on the first plane I gathered the group and said, "Hey guys, I have learned that giving the thumbs up sign to people in most of the countries we will be visiting is very very offensive. It's worse than flipping someone off. So remember. NO THUMBS UP!"

Sporadically throughout the flights I'd remind them " NO THUMBS UP once we get there".

We had boarded a plane in Birmingham, Al, flown to Atlanta, then flown to Stuttgart, Germany, then flown to Istanbul, Turkey.

We were all super excited and all tired. When we arrived in Istanbul we didn't have much time to eat and catch our connecting flight. We hustled through the distinctly foreign airport. We passed dozens of security guards all with full bullet proof vests and machine guns.

When we went to the counter there was no one who spoke even broken English. (My quick lesson on how to say "thank you" and "You're welcome" did NOT come in handy at this point).

We finally get our boarding passes and beeline for the terminal.

We aren't running (not sure I would ever run through a corridor when there are armed guards who look like they are basically waiting for someone to run so they can have target practice). We were walking very rapidly.

My mind is racing.

We have to catch this flight. We have 78 pieces of luggage (because we were traveling with a full PA in addition to our personal luggage). I was concerned with its location and if it was all going to make the trip. I couldn't ask anyone about it because no one we interacted with spoke English at all (not that I expected them to. We were in Turkey. They don't speak English in Turkey). But still.

All these thoughts were rushing through my mind. My body was on auto pilot.

We arrived at the gate with a few minutes to spare.

This airport is set up so that there is a medal detector right before you enter the seating area surrounding your specific gate.
As the guys started dumping all their carryon items on to the conveyor belt one by one, again my mind churned through about a million thoughts. As soon as I got through the security check I needed to ask the lady at the desk about the luggage, I needed to contact the military liaison in Bishkek, Kyrgystan to let him know when our flight would be arriving, I needed to check to make sure I had all the baggage claim tickets (thinking hopefully that the bags were gonna actually make it to Bishkek), I needed to be sure........OH it's my turn to go through the security check.

The security check was pretty standard. There was an X-Ray machine to the left upon which a conveyor belt ran through. You place your items on the conveyor belt, then stand in line to walk through the 7-8ft tall rectangle (metal detector) then await approval by the guard.
The situation is usual to me. I've been through 100's of these. But this one was a little different. The security guard was just like one of the security guards I passed in the corridor. He was military clad. He had a machine gun, a bullet proof vest and a blank serious demeanor.
This was rather intimidating but my mind was thinking 16 steps passed this check point already.
The stoic sinister looking guard motions me through the detector.

I walk through calmly like I always have before.

The guard gives me the universal nod to say, "You are clear to proceed".

This is where my body (which is still on auto pilot....because my brain has other things occupying it) failed me.

In a flash my body reacted to the guard's nod. However, instead of a reciprocal nod, or a wave, my body opted for guessed it.....THUMBS UP.

Oh. and not just one THUMBS UP. I did the double barrel TWO THUMBS UP directly in the armed guard's face.

Stoic intimidation turned to fierce anger. His eyebrows dropped, his eyes squinted and his hands gripped tighter on his gun.

As quickly as my body betrayed me, my mind realized the situation and tried to reconcile. I'm sure I must have looked like a deer in the headlights. My eyes were big as saucers. My expression and gestures let him know that I had made a mistake which I was aware of and intensely sorry for.

All this happened in a fraction of a second. The guard's fierce building anger melted quicker than it had arrived. He didn't just go back to being stoic. He actually smiled really big and chuckled. He gave me another nod as if to say , "I get it. It's cool."

A very intense situation had been averted. Not because of anything I had done. It was averted because I luckily happened to have run into an easy going security guard.

I have laughed about that moment for years.

I can't even tell you the last time I gave anyone a Thumbs Up before that moment. It must've been years. And the fact that it was the one most inappropriate time to give a Thumbs Up that I subconsciously decided to not give ONE Thumbs Up , but TWO Thumbs Up.

This situation has made me laugh at myself so often that I find that I use "Thumbs Up" ALL THE TIME now. And everytime I do, I smile a little because of Istanbul.

(PS- Mr Turkish Armed Guard, If you ever read this, thank you for not shooting me, even though I basically flipped you off with both hands directly in your face)

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