“My friend!” No other two words in this world are more terrifying.
For the traveler, any such greeting, especially from an affable stranger with loping gait and purposely casual affect, is pretty certain to lead to something other than friendship. Over more decades than I care to count as both an amateur and professional wanderer, I have never had such an encounter, usually started on some crowded street corner, that ended well.
My instantaneous “friends” in China wanted me to buy them cigarettes and blue jeans at the appropriately named Friendship Stores – state-run importers that took only the soon-to-be phased-out “F.E.C.” (not Friendly, but Foreign Exchange Currency). In Vietnam, a sweet girl I met in a Saigon park invited me to a family dinner where her father handed me a photo of her with English scrawl on the back saying, “Please adopt my daughter!” She told me that she loved music and I promised to send her a small electric keyboard — but as I was preparing to do so back in the U.S., I got a letter asking for ten thousand dollars to help fund an older sister’s college education!
Friends in most other places wanted, of course, to change money (a practice I foreswore after an amazing sleight of hand in a Delhi back alley, in which a wad of black-market bills somehow vanished between the time my eyes saw them and my hand grasped them); or to bring me to their family showroom for precious items I didn’t want or need.
In my opinion, the highest expression of slick befriending as art form is practiced in Turkey. This is not a knock at all on the place. In fact, when I first became identified as a practicing travel writer and people began asking me on hot tips for their vacation plans, I would always mention Turkey as the first option. (One of the more puzzling aspects of travel writing, for me, has been the concept that anyone should have so precarious a handle on their own wanderlust as to need to have it stimulated or directed by magazine articles and such — thereby negating the influence of my own pieces and the very occupation I was supposed to embrace.)
Turkey would get a rise since even now, the place is as little-known to Americans as it is overrun with Europeans. But the place seemed to me a fail-safe option, sure to please because it offered a little bit of everything: superb food at a pittance and accessible through points at the nearest simmering pots, magnificent landscapes, Mediterranean weather, luscious sea coasts, numerous layers of history, art and oddities, all mingled in an especially charming state of ruin, the exoticism of Islam in its most non-threatening form, not to mention back alleys teeming with boys bearing silver trays laden with cups of mint tea. The country has always won a sure place in my top ten “favorites” – stay tuned for such a list, and its criteria, coming soon – in spite of the fact that seemingly half the adult male population was employed in trying to sell me a carpet.
How naïve I was once time in the southern port of Antalya when some mustachioed Kemal invited me out of the blue to share a wonderful supper, punctuated by numerous toasts of mind-numbing raki! How could I have believed that I was really the first American he had ever seen in the flesh and that his interest in the Democrat and Grand Ol’ parties was as passionate as presented? Of course, the meal ended with discussion of the ancient local art of weaving, and my new pals exclusive connections to the very best sources for appreciating said art.
The most amazing aspect of such salesmen’s technique is that they seem willing to wait through many meals and toasts, through numerous solicitations, through hours of guidance and as many cups of tea as it takes and as much time flipping through their entire inventory to coax someone into pulling out their money (often to get rid of the nuisance rather than obtain their goods, which always carry the catch of being too cumbersome to carry or bothersome to ship). I still have a few flimsy area rugs, killer kilims in my closet to testify to my lack of staying power – somehow they never look as geometrically pleasing or exceptionally unique as they did at the time of purchase.
Does travel really foster international understanding, tolerance and brotherhood? Or does it only make the harsh realities of a hustling world that much sharper? And set most of us even more firmly in our suspicions, fears, narrowness?
Sorry, but the jury is still out on that one – and the world will never quite be convinced otherwise despite a barrage of advertising campaigns by the Tourism Boards of Yemen, Bulgaria or Malaysia (my former home and another personal favorite, but chock-a-block with malls, highways and ethnic tensions, and decidedly not the realm of dancing girls and empty sands depicted). True friendship, it turns out, is not one of those items included free of charge on the next package tour.