A travel log from uncharted territories
Late last fall I sat at my grandparents’ house, wine glass in hand, discussing traveling. Grandma had had an itch to visit Northern Cyprus for a while, and since grandpa “has had enough traveling for one lifetime” I offered to accompany her for a week long trip.
It’s fairly obvious that having traveled to over 35 countries via train, bus, boat, plane, camel, yak and foot, I love to travel. I have never before, however, sojourned on a package trip. You know, the kind where you cram 50 people into a bus, have a guide point at what to photograph and make sure everyone leaves home with an overpriced carpet
When I originally signed up for the trip, I didn’t register the fact that it was a package holiday. The reality of what I was about to experience didn’t dawn on me until I met grandma at the airport. Me, the vowed backpacker, on a bus with a half-deaf grandmother and 35 other pensioners. For the sake of my mental health, I decided to keep a travel log.
I meet grandma at the airport. She’s wearing her “good” traveling shoes and pressure socks. I look at backs of the heads in front of me at the check-in; a sea of gray. I realize I’ll have to adjust my walking pace.
To demonstrate how the digital passport control works, I go first. Grandma tries, but cant’t figure it out. She goes through the old-fashioned way.
Grandma is excited. I’m excited. We drink airport lattes and trace our ensuing tour on Google maps. Grandma thinks it’s neat how a map fits into my tiny phone.
We’re on the plane. Grandma is sitting one row behind me. Through my headphones I hear she’s already made friends with her fellow passengers. She’s telling them about her toe surgery. Despite what I think, it seems that’s an appropriate conversation starter. They compare ailments for the rest of the flight.
We arrive at the hotel, which is, in fact, a resort. I’ve never been to one, so the accommodation itself is a cultural experience. The main building is a replica on the temple of Artemis. Every corner and surface is adorned with plaster statues; a golden Artemis oversees the holidaying in the center aisle.
The buffet is an otherworldly experience—hellish. I counted 59 different types of desserts. Tens of meters of options in entrees, warm dishes, cheeses and breads. It’s pretty much exactly like the presidential party in Hunger Games, with the only difference being that no one seems to be heaving up to make room for me, judging by the short queue to the ladies. I assume one would have to spend a few weeks here, just to taste every single platter. I can’t make decisions, so I eat lettuce and cucumbers. The whole experience is giving me an anxiety attack. It doesn’t help that I stick out like a sore thumb. As I take my plate and try to decide which of the 15 cheeses to try, I feel questioning eyes on my back: what is that under 50-year old doing here?
It’s the first day of the actual tour. I hate walking in a crowd, especially when we’re all following a woman holding an umbrella. We walk behind her and she points at things for a while. Thankfully we get three glorious hours of freedom to explore Nikosia on our own. Despite her spunk, grandma can’t walk enormous distances, so we don’t venture too far. Just enough to taste freedom from the sheep herd, otherwise known as a tourist group.
I make an enemy on the bus. Someone takes our earlier seats, so we sit somewhere else. Turns out, another lady left her empty water bottle in the netted holder as a sign she’d reserved that specific seat for the whole day. We didn’t realize that and she’s angry. Oh well—grandma shrugs her shoulders--you win some, you lose some. Later we make amends.
We visit the remains of a Roman city. Watching seniors struggle on the cobblestones dislodged by time, I feel a strange mixture of pride, empathy and gratitude. Pride in them for trying, empathy for them not being able to physically accomplish all they’d probably want to, and gratitude for the strength and mobility I still have.
An older gentleman calls me a girlie. I feel offended; 27 is hardly a girl anymore. But I guess in his eyes there’s barely a difference between 15 and 27.
A bus full of exhausted tourists returns to the resort, ready to stuff their faces.
Less walking today. “Thank God”, says grandma.
We sit in the bus and periodically get off to snap a picture or buy trinkets. The set-up is not my cup of tea. I power through with Katy Perry blasting through my headphones. Eventually I give in and buy a bottle of grappa.
Grandma tells me all kinds of stories from her travels. Two times she’s almost drowned, because she couldn’t resist swimming in big waves. “I’ve always been a daredevil”, she says. I believe her and relate to her. Later she turns to me in the bus and says: “You know, I’m the kind of person that if you tell me we’re leaving for a trip tomorrow, I’d just say let’s go”. It makes me want to cry. I see so much of myself in her.
In the evening, we sit on the balcony and grandma tells me of her friends who’ve passed, how grandpa has gotten annoyingly stubborn with age and how she always wanted to drive from Finland to Turkey. We drink wine and shudder in the cool of the evening. Grandma has brought a little candle from home, to burn on the hotel balcony. I watch the brave, flickering flame and can’t help but see the resemblance. She’s like that too—resilient, full of spark and warmth.
Grandma goes to sleep early and I go sit under the shadow of golden Artemis. A live performer sings Dancing Queen slightly off-key. Nordic languages around me melt into a single happy chatter and at the end of day three, I feel surprisingly comfortable being where I am.
Shopping day—or what turns out to be my greatest ordeal so far.
We drive to a carpet factory where grandma sets her eye on a 3000 euro Armenian piece. The salesmen detect her interest and within seconds flock to her like vultures. Before I know it, we’re in a separate room negotiating prices. I use every hackling trick I ever learned living in Turkey, and negotiate a fairly good price. It takes half an hour and many errand boys who keep running to the boss the confirm they price is still a-okay.
“Alright grandma, this is as low as they’ll go. Will you take it?”, I ask. She nods. The salesmen look pleased. “How will the madam be paying, credit card or cash?”, they ask me.
It turns out grandma doesn’t have a credit card and only a fraction of the price in cash. I look at her in disbelief. “How did you think you were going to buy this carpet, grandma?” She just shrugs her shoulders. ”It’s a good price, but I’m not going to buy it”, she says and starts walking away.
The salesmen look worried. I’ve never been as uncomfortable in my life. I follow grandma out of the room apologizing profusely. The salesmen shake their heads with disappointment.
I lose my patience and tell grandma I won’t be helping her with any shopping. She doesn’t understand what my problem is. I’m too exhausted from the whole ordeal to explain why it’s impolite to waste peoples time if you know you’re not buying something. Instead, I go for a walk around the block. By the time I get back, we’re being ordered to get on the bus and head to a jewelry outlet. “You’re not buying anything”, I tell grandma.
Once again, we find ourselves in a separate room examining diamonds. This time I tell the saleswoman in Turkish “my grandma doesn’t have the money to buy anything here, feel free to show her stuff and give us tea, but we’re not leaving here with a diamond”. She understands and offers me a job at the outlet. I decline.
Next, we’re shipped to a leather outlet. Good thing grandma isn’t into leather. We drink yet another cup of complementary tea, I chat with the salespeople and get offered a job in the leather outlet. I decline.
On the way back to the resort, everyone looks exhausted. Finns are not used to the aggressive sales approach they’ve just experienced but they are stingy enough to resist the “special prices”. Very few carry a purchase back to the resort.
We’ve been with the same people for five days now. Some characters have began to stick out.
There’s Angry Man, who thinks everyone is out to piss in his eye. Haven’t seen a smile on this face once. Then there’s the Retired Rock star: leather jacket, shoulder-length gray hair and a beer glued to his hand. He skips the sights and concentrates on the drink. We chat quite a bit, he’s chill.
The Fab Five is a group of ladies in their mid-50’s on a girls’ trip. They’re really sucking the marrow out of life, enjoying every bit of the trip. I hope I’m like them when I’m in my fifties. You’ve already met Justice Woman, the lady who thought it an actual crime that we sat in the seats she’d reserved. Haven’t seen her smile either.
The Finnish Stereotype Couple take sips from their flask throughout the day and refrain from speaking to anyone all week. Then there’s the Ancient One. She’s probably over 90 and on the trip with her daughter, or possibly granddaughter. Because many items on the travel agenda involve quite a bit of walking, she often stays behind on the bus. Like for 3-4 hours at a time. It seems a bit inhumane, but she doesn’t seem to mind.
The rest of our group blends into a mass. I wonder what they all think us grandma and me. I don’t think we’ve made a great impression. I must seem distant or even arrogant to them. And grandma, well, she has a habit of commenting on everything and everyone in “whispers”. But being half-deaf, she really doesn't know how to whisper.
“Dear Lord, look at that Inka. Is that couple drinking vodka on the bus?”
“Shh, grandma, they can hear you!”
“But I’m whispering”.
“Well, it’s pretty loud grandma. I know they just heard you.”
So yeah, they all probably have nicknames for us too.
We get our last full day “off”, as in, no organized activities. Package trips, it turns out, are hard work. We’re both exhausted and elated to have a day to ourselves. We find a local café, order Turkish coffee and grandma texts grandpa. It’s sweet to see her eyes sparkle and to hear her chuckle when she reads his reply. Back home they often bicker but distance seems to make the heart grow fonder and I love bearing witness to that.
It’s time to fly home. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t ready, and I think grandma feels the same way. The early mornings and walking have taken their toll on her. At the same time, I’m very happy we made the trip. I learned so much about my grandma, who has always been a bit of an enigma. During the week, she opened up to me in ways I hadn’t experienced before. I can see snippets of my personality in her. I admire her endless hunger for life and a bit of adventure. I feel like I know her now. And for that, I’d cram into another bus full of seniors, walk behind a lady with an umbrella and look at endless rows of souvenirs again.