What’s Your Favorite Country?

When people learn of my travels far and wide, they often ask what my favorite country is.  I never tire of the question because I always love to talk travel.  But in reality it’s an impossible question to answer, for me at least, because I don’t have one favorite.  A better way to phrase it would be “What countries did you find really special, and why?”
There are no countries I regret visiting, and only a few I would write bad things about.  Some didn’t impress me much, even though I had no bad experiences, some left me with lukewarm or warm memories, but there are only a few I would put in the “really special” category.  There are many things to consider: ease of travel, attitude of the people, food, cultural richness, historical interest, architecture, and overall atmosphere.  I can think of two, Japan and Iran, that score very high in my book, and I would be remiss not to mention them.  But the top two on my list are Turkey and India.

I’ll start with Turkey and I’ll begin by saying that I, along with many people of my generation, was brainwashed into believing that Turkey was a dangerous country with a primitive, barbaric population after seeing the movie Midnight Express​ in 1978.  Leave it to Hollywood.  The film, which played fast and loose with the truth, was based on the true story of a guy from Long Island named Billy Hayes, who in 1970 tried to smuggle out two bricks of hashish taped to his chest, was caught at the airport in Istanbul, and sentenced to 30 years in prison, from which he eventually escaped by boat into neighboring Greece.

Now it may well be that Turkish prison guards are not nice people and prison conditions there are very bad, maybe even as bad as American prisons, but this film was libelous, as later admitted by Hayes himself.  And no sensible person should feel any sympathy for a foreign tourist caught trafficking in drugs, which carries the death penalty in several Asian nations.  Anyway, in 1982 I met an English couple, seasoned travelers, who had been to Turkey and raved about it, assuring me it was a safe and wonderful country.  Two years later I went, spending five weeks there.

I walked into the country from Greece, and four hours later, after crossing the sliver of Turkey that lies in Europe, I was in Istanbul, an excellent introduction to Turkey, one of the world’s great cities, and incidentally the only one that straddles Europe and Asia.  Here I discovered the marvels of Turkish cuisine, which never let me down – excellent soups, puddings, salads, and lamb dishes.  It seemed like every kind of fruit and nut grew in Turkey, too, as nowhere else I’ve ever been, except California, so it was fun hitting the local markets for healthy snacks.  People everywhere were kind and helpful.  There seems to be a code of hospitality, a generosity towards foreign visitors, in this part of the world, which includes Turkey’s eastern neighbors, but not its Arab neighbors to the south.

The public bus system throughout Turkey is awesome.  You can show up at a bus station in any large city or small town without a reservation, buy a ticket to anywhere, and be on your way within an hour.  At least that’s the way it was in 1984.  No other country can match it.  The longest ride, say, from Istanbul to Kars, near the Armenian border, would take about 25 hours, covering nearly 1000 miles, but you’d want to get there in bits and pieces, as I did.

Like our Greyhounds, the buses are large and comfortable, but unlike the U.S. there’s a multitude of companies.  There are passenger trains as well, but they come in a distant second.  Generally speaking, I prefer trains over buses, but definitely not in Turkey.

But what really clinched Turkey for me is the fact that nearly the whole country is one vast archaeological museum.  Once known as Asia Minor, this is one of the world’s oldest regions of human settlement, and as the main corridor between East and West, countless migrations and conquests that left their mark in stone still stand.  Almost everywhere you go there are well-preserved relics of the ancient past, and no two are alike.  No other country has half as many.  You can have a fresh seafood dinner at an outdoor restaurant in the delightful town of Kas, gazing at rock tombs of some bygone era, partially submerged in the turquoise Mediterranean Sea.  Further east are the hills of Cappadocia, strange formations where prehistoric men carved out shelters to live; people still live there, now with electricity and running water.  Go east some more to Nemrut Dagi, reachable only by a hike that was strenuous enough when I was 30; I wouldn’t try it at 68.  (There may be a road up there now.)  Scattered about this site, which was only discovered in 1881, are the sculpted heads of the kings of some obscure dynasty.  Have a look at photos on the internet; there’s nothing else quite like it, especially at sunset, when I was there.  About as far east as you can get is Kars, with more old ruins and not far away, Mt. Ararat, of Noah’s Ark lore.  Even in July Kars was rather cold under an angry sky, an eerily beautiful backdrop to this remote area plagued by earthquakes.  I could go on and on, but I can’t be writing a guidebook here.

Some may tell you that Turkey is poor, but the people have what they need, I saw no slums or dire poverty, and beggars are few.  Adding to the attraction, at least for me, is that the Turks, in centuries past conquerors of the Ottoman Empire, have mellowed, and despite being nestled in the world’s foremost hotspot, live in as much peace and stability as one could hope for.  Turkey has long coastlines, north and south, but also shares land borders with Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan (these three were part of the old Soviet Union, and the two A’s recently wrangled over disputed land along the Turkish border), Iran, Iraq, Syria, and on its small European strip, Greece and Bulgaria.  Of all these, the only country that Turkey has an ongoing problem with is Greece!

Is there anything unfavorable to write?  Just a few things.  Most of Ankara, the capital, is modern and of little interest.  The towns along the Black Sea coast also lacked character, I thought, so unlike the interior and the south.  My only negative experience was walking the streets of Mardin, a city in the southeast, wearing shorts, and seeing people stare and mutter at me.  I wised up and wore only long pants after that in the more conservative and traditional east.  This is a good rule of thumb in all Islamic nations.  I might add that in 2007, before returning home from a trip to Central Asia on which I flew Turkish Airlines, I scheduled a two-day stopover in Istanbul, just to have a second look at this alluring city.  Unfortunately, too many people had discovered the country in the intervening 23 years, and after much walking and inquiring, I was lucky to find a room in a cheap hotel – a room that would’ve cost five or six dollars a night in 1984, but was now $52!  Hopefully, things are still cheap in the hinterland.  If travel ever rebounds, I’ll pass along the advice offered long ago by that English couple that I’m so glad I heeded: Go to Turkey.

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Let me preface my remarks about India by saying that I would not be surprised if, after reading them, you cannot understand my infatuation with the place.  Talk to someone who’s been there.  Despite its overwhelming problems, there’s a magic about India not to be found anywhere else on earth.  It is the most exotic country I have ever visited.  It’s the only country where I experienced what used to be called “culture shock.”  I saw things that I can’t forget and can’t be compared to anywhere else.

I arrived in New Delhi by air on December 17, 1986 to begin a three-month trip to four countries.  Before leaving home I purchased a 30-day rail pass for $100, but I didn’t use it right away.  I stayed in India about ten days before heading to Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh, from where I re-entered India by land, and then began my train trip, zig-zagging my way around, usually spending two or three nights in one spot before moving on.  New Delhi didn’t interest me, though it was a good base to visit some places of interest, most notably the Taj Mahal, and it acquainted me with the unique Indian phenomenon of mass numbers of urban homeless – the pavement dwellers, many of them women with small children, who eke out their lives on the sidewalks, their only shelter often being nothing but a piece of cardboard.

But my real immersion in India took place when I arrived in Varanasi around dawn after taking the overnight train from New Delhi.  I’ve never taken LSD or any hallucinogenic drug, but making my way out of the train station was like a psychedelic dream.  Men in suits and white tunics, women in saris, cows wandering through the throngs, mists drifting in and out of the open air station – was this really happening?  Out in the street the scene was equally unreal.  I’ve never seen such chaos – a crush of pedestrians, ox carts, bicycle rickshaws, scooters, and all kinds of motorized vehicles, horns blaring.  On top of some taxi cabs were corpses wrapped in white linen, headed to the holy Ganges River to be cremated on its banks.  It was sensory overload.  Hours later, after finding a hotel, I went down to the river ghats (steps) to watch the cremations.  Indians are very easygoing about photographs, but these funeral pyres are an exception; taking pictures of them is strictly forbidden, so I just watched from a distance.

Soon after leaving Varanasi I left India as well, but I was back a month later, first stop Calcutta (now spelled Kolkata).  Calcutta is the end of the world, and has been for a long time.  Everywhere in India, everywhere that I was anyway (I regret not visiting any small villages), the well to do bustle past the desperately poor – and by desperately poor I mean, for example, scrabbling through rubbish piles looking for something to eat – but the contrast is nowhere greater than in this city.  So many people seemed to be just barely clinging to life.  Fifty yards from the entrance to the train station I saw something I’ve never seen anywhere else – a dead body, just ignored.  I walked past it on the sidewalk, at first thinking it was just another sprawled-out pavement dweller, but something made me walk back for a second look.  It was a man, the face and lower parts wrapped in cloth.  I looked closely at the chest, which had turned yellow and was not moving, though it didn’t smell.  I couldn’t believe it.  Well-dressed Indians hurried by, giving it no more than a glance.  I took a quick photo and went on my way.  Ten minutes later I came across a book fair attended by cultured and well-dressed men and women.  That kind of crazy contrast is evident everywhere.  And because India had long been a British colony, there are as many signs in English as there are in Sanskrit, and in a country with so many racial divisions and literally hundreds of tongues, English is the unifying language.  There are still a few charming vestiges of colonialism spread throughout the country, like afternoon tea in Calcutta’s Fairlawn Hotel.  See a corpse on the sidewalk in the morning, have tea and crumpets in the afternoon.

I activated my rail pass in Calcutta.  India is a huge country, and though I saw a lot, there was a lot I didn’t see.  Upon arrival in a town or city, I’d go to the reservations office to book a seat or a sleeper berth for the next leg, and was assigned a carriage number.  It never failed to amaze me how, when it was time to depart a few days later on an overnight trip, I’d walk along the train and find my name stenciled among many others on a large paper sheet attached to the proper car.  Nothing was computerized.  The railway officials were always polite, as nearly everyone in India is to foreigners; that’s part of the magic.  Only once did I encounter a snippy waiter.  At that time, in 1987, steam was still king, which made train travel that much more delightful.  The transition to diesel engines in India, which was one of the world’s last steam holdouts, took place in the 1990s.  It also amazed me that in a country of such abject poverty, crime against foreign tourists was nearly unheard of; even petty theft was not a worry, though I’ve read otherwise.  I can only tell you what I experienced.

I will relate just one more memorable sight.  I was walking around Bombay (now Mumbai) and was directly across the street from the five-star Intercontinental Hotel, where two Sikh doorman, regally dressed in starched uniforms and turbans, stood outside.  A stark naked derelict came wandering down the sidewalk.  I stopped and watched as he walked right up to the hotel entrance.  Then the two Sikhs shouted at him and gave chase, one picking up a stick and whacking him on the back as they ran after him.  At fifty yards the doormen gave up and turned back, chattering and laughing.

I’ve come across some well-traveled folks who told me that they have no interest in visiting India.  That puzzles me because no country in the world is more exotic.  It was my reading of Paul Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar​ in the late seventies that whetted my appetite to see this country.  Although I don’t care for some of his attitudes, Theroux is a great travel writer who has probably been to more than 150 countries, always alone and traveling by train whenever possible.  The aforementioned book is a lively account of his four-month journey, nearly all by rail, from England to Japan via southern Asia, then back to London on the Trans-Siberian.  He related far more stories about India than any other country.  In a 2015 interview, at age 74, he said, “One place I could return to again and again is India.  There’s something about the size of it, the complexity of it and the darkness of it.  Indians are approachable as well as maddening.”  I don’t know what he meant by “maddening,” but there’s just something special about this country that made a profound impression – on him, on me, and on a lot of other people.