When my uncle asked about my interest in attending a youth camp sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Turkey for two weeks at no cost to me, the thought never crossed my mind that it would be the most life-changing two weeks in my young life. The summer of 2009 sent me overseas for over four weeks, but this experience only covers half of that time. Eight students and three teachers (chaperones) were chosen to attend a Teaching Tolerance Through English youth camp in Canakkale, Turkey; I was the only one from Idaho. None of us knew each other beforehand, which added to my already nervous emotions. But as soon as the first flight was over, we were bonded.
By the time we arrived in Turkey, it was quite late, and we were all suffering from severe jet lag. We had our first Turkish meal in a 'take-away' (to go) establishment and met the Armenians. Then both of our busses caravanned the rest of the gruelingly long trek to Canakkale Kolegi.
We arrived on a Sunday, which just so happened to be a national holiday in Turkey, a water holiday. The tradition was to spray water on each other, ending in an epic water fight. We were lucky enough to be introduced to this tradition, which acted as a salvation from the pressing heat. We were split up into groups and made songs, chants and, most importantly, friends. All countries were divided into different groups so as to expand boundaries. We were also given tours as a camp of the school and of the small zoo placed in the 'forest.'
In fact, I was surprised at the variety of trees and plant-life in Turkey. I expected it to be a desert: dry, arid. To my pleasant surprise, it didn't remind me of a desert at all. Pine trees would be growing right next to palm trees just as if it were the most natural thing in the world. I could look out of the top deck in the school and see nothing but trees for miles, then look another direction and see the long and winding streets of cities. Sunflower seeds are rampant in the area, also. The air was thick with humidity and heat, but that's what made the breezes feel so heavenly. Nights were slept without covers and the window open to catch any slight stirs of air.
The teachers/chaperones from each country, along with every counselor except two at a time, were shuttled every evening and morning to and from a hostel, where they stayed every night while we were confined in our dorms. The two counselors that were assigned to stay certain nights stayed at the school with us to act as chaperones. Each morning in my assigned dorm room (shared with a Turk and Armenian), I would wake up to my watch's alarm. A couple of other girls and I would gather and migrate to the showers together. The temperature was always a small surprise for us, not knowing whether the day would bring warm water or an ice-cold tragedy.
Turkish food would have been hard to get used to, had we not consumed it everyday, three times a day. Everything seemed really oily, definitely more than I was used to. The Turkish like to use dressed up vegetables as main dishes; for example, the first day we ate stuffed eggplant. They also eat bread at every meal. They like rice-esque dishes as well, like my new favorite 'couscous.'
At every meal, we were encouraged to mingle and get to know other kids we might not have met in our groups or throughout the day. We spent hours in that cafeteria helping kids learn English, listening to stories and asking questions. Everyone meshed and got along, which really helped me to understand that teenagers, no matter where they live, are the same everywhere, despite certain background differences. All the girls were boy-crazy, and all the boys talked about sports and stupid stunts. It was the most rewarding time when Armenians and Turks would talk without need for a translator or English tutor. I felt like we were all part of the same worldwide family.
Canakkale is located in the upper west corner of Turkey, right on the Marmara Sea; more specifically, the Straits of Dardanelles. Needless to say, we were quite close to water. We walked the couple miles to the beach three different days. We all enjoyed taking thousands of pictures with this friend or this counselor, this group or that. I spent hours playing in the waves of the sea, letting it wash away the heat. Various Turkish treats were purchased at the beach, most that were completely new to the Americans, including a circular bagel-type food, called a simet, with sesame seeds.
We took several field trips by bus to surrounding areas, like the historic city of Troy. It was the actual city where the battle was fought, which made it completely awesome. Later when I learned more about it in history, I actually had taken the same picture that was in the book with my own camera. There, they had a Trojan horse remake made for tourists to climb in. We also climbed the streets of a town to reach the 'Temple of Athena,' visited a New Zealand/Australia war memorial and traveled to other various beaches in Gelibolu.
The very last day, the Americans were in Istanbul all day. We went to a world famous bazaar (flea market), which was full of stacks and stacks of carpets. Then we went in the Blue Mosque, which is open to tourists even when people are worshipping, but everyone had to cover up if they were wearing short sleeves or shorts. The Blue Mosque was amazing! The detailing of the walls and ceiling are impeccably intricate. The architecture is so unique, also. Then our counselor took us to a real Turkish restaurant and helped us order. It was a nice change from the greasy cafeteria food we had eaten for the past two weeks. Then, my favorite part of the night happened. It was dark, and the city lights had all come on. We crossed a large bridge and stopped to look back...at Europe. Istanbul is the dividing line between the two continents. It was so amazing.
Turkey is one place I never thought I would go or ever want to go back to. This trip absolutely changed my mind, and if I had a chance to go back, I would in a heartbeat. This experience was unlike any other and, and Turkey will always hold a big part of my heart.
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