It’s almost four o’clock in the morning and suddenly I’m wide-awake. Something is different. Perhaps it’s the mugginess of the city air; perhaps it’s the smells from an unfamiliar dinner clinging to the breeze through the house; perhaps it’s the buzzing of an unwelcome guest in the darkness. But no, as I stir in my room, my eyelids flicking open, I realise it is none of these. It is the drums.
Visiting Turkey during Ramadan (the ninth month of the Islamic calendar – to those who don’t know – in which Muslims observe the ritual of fasting) can be the best way to immerse yourself in a true cultural experience. An increased element of ‘community’ is particularly strong this time of year. Family meal-times feel closer than ever, with my family expecting everybody (no exceptions) to be hands on in the kitchen running up to 8 o’clock, when the lights of the Mosques across the city will turn green and the fast is broken until the sun rises again. Ankara, the country’s bustling capital, has a truly perfect landscape at sunset during Ramadan and I can recline with the call to Prayer echoing while my family chomp away. It really is quite a feeling.
So this is the reason I crawl out of bed at 4 in the morning to slump over the windowsill with my head dangling into the night. The city’s Ramadan tradition of drumming street men have to start out early in order to get round the whole area before sunrise, signalling everyone to get up and get eating before the day breaks! My family clump round a dimly lit table on the balcony and feast silently on fresh peaches, olives, white cheese and a special loaf Ramadan ‘Pide’ freshly baked early that evening…oh, and not forgetting the most important food at this time of year according to my uncle: dates! A pot of Cay is set to brew and on this occasion I decline, deciding to leave them to it and retreat back to bed. The drums are now a distant hum as I doze, feeling privileged to be experiencing such a blast of culture from what feels like the epicentre (after such a din) of a city alive with traditions even in the small hours of the night.
Despite visiting my Turkish cousins every summer since I can remember, my language skills have still not improved. I can just about get by at market with ‘bu ne kadar?’ (How much is this?), remembering to swiftly decline whatever price they offer this foreign face first and wait for a better offer. So for anyone heading to Istanbul or further into this diversely varied country I would highly recommend practising basic conversational skills. ‘Yok teşekkürler’ (“No thank you”. Pronounced: te-sheh-coo-lur) is another handy phrase when passing through the Grand Bazar in Istanbul for example, unless you want to be trapped for hours and emerge with enough scarves to fill your entire wardrobe. Remembering social etiquette and remaining friendly while abroad is the best tip for any budding traveller, whether you’re embarking on the culture-shock adventure of a lifetime or just visiting friends and relatives in cities that are all too familiar. A simple smile and an effort to say ‘güle güle’ (goo-lay goo-lay) instead of Goodbye will most likely grant you an open invitation should you ever wish to return. Taking the time to learn the simplest of common-phrases will set you out amongst the rest of tourists – and I always like to know how to order a beer in whatever country I’m in!
Whether it’s the internationally recognised, former capital of culture, Istanbul; the vast capital Ankara; the white shores of Antalya; or the lively local nightlife of Bodrum; Turkey has something for everyone. Or perhaps I’m biased from too many years of sleeping on warm balconies, or under meteor showers on deserted jetties, or simply the warm welcome I receive as soon as I’m past passport control…but 100 cups of black tea later and Turkey is still where I’ll be next summer.