Monday, March 24, 2008

My Business Trip to Mersin, Turkey

I went to Turkey – to Mersin on the eastern Mediterranean coast. I had only heard of Mersin before when I worked for PWC/Agility and they were just breaking ground on a warehouse there. I knew very little about the country. The area is kind of like the Turkish version of our very own Redneck Riviera in the US. I arrived at the airport in Adana, which is approximately 45 minutes to my final destination. I went without (really) studying a map or learning any Turkish – which I regretted. Adana airport is very small, but it does house two large duty free shops full of liquor (and very little else). As I waited for my luggage to arrive on the airports one carousel, the shop clerks waved me in. They had vodka from everywhere in the world – in ever imaginable bottle. I liked the hot-pink bottle called, “For Girls”. I asked the burly Turkish clerk if he had ever tried it. He shook his head rigorously and made me laugh. (I bet he had!) Out there, in the middle of nowhere, I found a very nice bottle of 2005 Chilean Cabernet Savignon – my favorite (unfortunately, I got sick as soon as I got to the hotel and only enjoyed half a glass. The bottle looked pretty in the room, however.).

I was invited to attend the “1st International Business Women Congress” by The Association of Enterprising Business Women, GISKAD. 250 women from different countries… and then me. There were women from Kazakhstan, Egypt, Moldova, Syria, UAE, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Sudan, Tunisia, Ukraine, Italy, Pakistan and Turkey.

I was the only person representing Kuwait. That’s right – me, an American – representing my country, Kuwait. [H.E. Nouriyah Sabieh (Minister of Education) was also supposed to attend from Kuwait, but didn’t. I had really looked forward to meeting her too, so I was quite disappointed.] In a strange, ironic way; many of the women at the conference actually thought I was Kuwaiti. “Why do you speak with an American accent?” (Not that I would mind being Kuwaiti, but what is wrong with that picture? Ever played that game as a kid, “One of these things doesn’t fit with the others”?) I really felt duty-bound to be on my best behavior (or at least appear to be). I was the only Westerner there (but definitely NOT the only blonde there – and OMG what blondes!) The CEO of our company asked me if I was behaving as an American or a Kuwaiti. After pondering that question: I think that perhaps due to the level of diplomacy required, I behaved more like a Brit.

As far as appearances go, I was one of the few who weren’t wearing spandex, stretch-satin, sequins, fishnet stockings, or rhinestones. One young lady had the words, “playboy” prominently displayed down both arms on her shirt. There were many mini-skirts and lots of tricky-clicky stiletto shoes. Lots of women wore jeans or athletic clothing. There was an enormous amount of hideous hairstyles that seemed to have come out of the early ‘60s, held together obviously with glue and boatloads of hairspray. There were equal amounts of Russian Red (that is actually a color by MAC) lipstick, black nail polish and bad perfume. Yes yes, did I mention it was a business conference? Out of all fairness, the exact type of business was only mentioned in the invitations/documents several hundred times.

I would love to be able to write a saleable story about this, but I can’t. First, because the tourism people paid for (most of) my trip and their hospitality was just overwhelming. I don’t want to dis a group of people who have been so kind (and get paid for it), so I can vent here in an anonymous forum (my blog) with (hopefully) no fear of getting in trouble or upsetting anyone. Well, I’m not disrespecting the organizers: It was, after all, their first attempt at such a forum. Organizing an event with 250 women can not possibly go off without a hitch. Hopefully, if any one of them ever reads this, they’ll know that I’m looking at it from a humorous/interesting perspective rather than trying to be demeaning.

We were organized into 2 groups: The group at the good hotel and the group at “the other one”. I was in the “other one”: The Taksim Hotel: 46 floors and no air conditioning; Every room a smoking room and not a single window that you could open. I asked for a room on a lower floor (fire, earthquake?) and was told that the hotel level starts at 32. I was on 37. My ears popped every time I rode the elevator. It was the first “5 star” hotel that I’ve ever stayed in that didn’t accept American Express. It was also the only “5 star” with actual holes in the furniture and stains on the floors. The good hotel was the Hilton right on the sea. I couldn’t even see the sea from my room. The Taksim reminded me A LOT of the Al-Rasheed Hotel in Baghdad. I think they both used the same decorator: NASTEH. Whatever 3rd world cleaning fluid they used on the floors was also identical; I don’t know what it is, but it smells like burning wood. I smelled it in Egypt as well.

Everybody smokes in Turkey! I thought that Kuwait was bad in this regard, but Turkey is the worst. I went to Turkey with a bad cold. I’ve got asthma and couldn’t breathe. Then, I got feverish. I went outside at one point to “get some fresh air” and a little old lady wearing hejab sat down right next to me and lit up! Even little old ladies?

I don’t know if their local community is really ready for a business women’s conference. The night before the conference, we were provided with packets including our itinerary and “Guide for Businessmen”. We were herded like cattle into the little ballroom of the Hilton in Mersin, and then practically trampled by the onslaught of male Turkish media covering the event who bumped the participants out of the way; I’m sure you know the type – pony tails and khaki men.

Unfortunately, the female participants talked, and generally behaved badly through most of the opening presentations (and not even in a “reserved” Kuwaiti fashion). It reminded me of the old days in Salmiya Cinema. All that was missing were the laser pointers. It was disheartening that women in a group should prove the stereotype that women talk too much (obviously, some do!). It wasn’t a civilized group. The Russians were shouting translations across to each other behind me. The Syrians were just talking to each other as if nothing was happening at the front of the room. The Sudanese women were actually pretty well behaved throughout the opening – probably because they had a speaker in the opening ceremony. People smoked in the back of the room. It was a circus. We had an interpreter into English through headsets, but unfortunately I couldn’t understand a word of what they were saying because the accents were so thick. I finally got up and walked in front of the sea (I couldn’t walk too close because unfortunately there was a chain link fence between the sea and the hotel.)

During lunch at the 1st International Business WOMEN Congress, the men rushed first to the buffet line: So much for ladies first. Even the rent-a-cops ate first. To add insult to injury, I stood in the corridor outside the ballroom after lunch waiting for the next program and a man started shouting at me in Turkish. I had no idea what he wanted, so I asked him, “What do you want?” He pushed me! It turned out that he was one of the Minister of State’s security guards. Well gee, no one told me. I had no idea. I was wearing a badge and everything – he wasn’t. (Once again, at the Business WOMEN Congress!). It was so insulting that I thought about getting on the next plane. One of the Egyptian women told me to “calm down”. Later in the day, the same man tried to push her too and she had the same reaction. The next insult came when one of the men from the Trade Commission asked me if I wanted to take a tour of the city after dinner… meaning at midnight. AS IF. Yeah, let’s go watch the submarine races… Several of the other women were also propositioned in the same way, much to the disgust of the Turkish delegates.

I like how the meetings were organized to promote trade with local companies: Each participant (or group of participants from the same country) had their own table with a Turkish flag and their home country flag (in my case, Kuwait). The organization had pre-arranged meetings with local companies wanting to do business with particular countries or companies. An organizers representative told me that my table was the most popular. I talked for almost 5 consecutive hours. My throat was raw, my head ached, and I didn’t have time to go back to the hotel to change for the Gala Banquet – and I was too tired anyways. Some of the women wore ball gowns. I wore sensible shoes and a black suit and the same make up for 12 hours. Even my push-up bra went South.

The cultural differences among the ladies were quite amusing. We had an interesting cross-section of ages, sizes, colors, religions, and ethnicities. We never really cracked the language barrier, but most of us did okay with hand signals. I had a really hard time trying to explain to an Azerbaijani woman, diplomatically, that her name is the same as my dogs. The very tall Sudani women got into a huge fight and shouted at each other (staying at the same hotel, so they were on the bus with the Russians and I). I think I was the only person who understood what they were saying. One of the Sudani women kept saying, “Diplomacy! Diplomacy!” as she tried to get her friends to stop shouting at each other. It was the only phrase in English – the rest was Sudani Arabic which as a dialect, I can’t understand very well. The Russians claimed their own bus and kicked everybody else off. One of the Russian women pushed me out of the way at a clothes rack during our stop at the mall. (Mahmut, one of the young Turkish men who were guides came to my rescue. I miss Mahmut. I could use him at Mubarakiya) The Emirati women kept to themselves most of the time (telling jokes and talking about people) and all the Russian women wanted to have their pictures taken with them (now there was a contrast!).

Sometime along the line, I introduced myself to the Emirati group and said, “I’m from Kuwait.” Immediately they said, “Wheeeeee! We have been looking for you. Are you all alone? Come join us, ya Kuwait!” They turned out to be very nice and very funny. We are, after all, neighbors. A woman who I referred to as “maynoona” (because two minutes after I met her was cracking dirty jokes in Arabic) owns a dayn al oud business and she had several vials and shared it with everyone on the bus – including the driver. Another of the Emirati women (Dr. Raja) was absolutely gorgeous, tall and statuesque. She told me that her son is going off to school in Boston and how sad she is going to be without him. She is already losing sleep and shedding tears. We’re all different, but we’re all the same, really.

The group organizers took us on tours of the neighboring town of Tarsus which was interesting in an out-of-body/surreal kind of way. It has ancient buildings and roads and lots of history; most of which was not explained in very much detail. In order to get around, we went in approximately 7 large busses. Apparently, no one told the villagers that we would be invading their town. It became pretty funny. The Syrian women started singing and people from everywhere opened their windows and peered out to get a look. The police stopped traffic and stopped where they were standing and stared. The street vendors made a fortune selling bread, baklava and lemonade. We went to see churches and mosques, museums and malls. One of the young Emirati ladies asked me if it was okay to go in the church. I told her that nothing would fall on her head. It was the Church of St. Paul – very old with beautiful mosaics on the ceiling and a lovely garden. I ran off on my own to find ice cream – which is really good in Turkey. I was tired and ended up back at the bus watching a group of old men play (and cheat at) backgammon on the sidewalk.

Unfortunately, the “person in charge” of the entire entourage was the only person who really must have known what was going on throughout the tour. We didn’t know where we were going next and we sure didn’t know where any bathrooms were located (um, it must have been a man doing the organizing because any woman would know that if you have a group of 250 women, there should really be bathrooms). At the lunch stop at a restaurant overlooking beautiful waterfalls, for example….. there were only 2 bathrooms and one of them was for men. The guys were just SOL because we invaded. On the flip side, anyone had provided us bottled water during either the conference or the tours, that might have been nice too. I thought I would literally faint several times – and I’m not a fainting kinda gal.

The last night of the conference, a “dinner” was on the agenda. It turned out to be a several-hour performance of cultural classical Turkish music and dance – which was amazing. I loved it. The voices were fantastic and they had choreographed everything so well; really went to a lot of time and trouble. Too bad I was sitting in the middle of the Syrians. One of them was loudly complaining about how long it was taking. Why can’t people just shut the F up and be gracious? I was hungry too, but people went to so much care to arrange the show for us. Retards. Obviously, they’ve nevah had any cultcha.

During the performance, gift bags containing small items were handed out to all the participants. Wonder of wonders – it also contained a map of the area (which would have really been nice to have on the first day).

I was so sick through all of this. I had a fever and problems breathing. I blame our IT manager at work who coughed all over our office before I left Kuwait. (WHY don’t mothers teach their kids to cover their damn mouths???). It was pretty scary being alone in a hotel room in a country where not many people speak English and not being able to breathe. The last night we were there, it was hot during the day and really cold and windy at night. I couldn’t even eat much (fer sure no great desire for fried food) and I was dying for soup. Mahmout felt sorry for me – I could tell. I got on 3 flights (congested) to go back to Kuwait and I really messed myself up.

Have you ever wanted to kiss the ground when you have gotten off a plane? I have felt that way the first time I came to Kuwait after the invasion and this time.

The Romanian picked me up at the airport and drove me to the hospital. Whenever your doctor checks you out and continually repeats, “Oh my God! Oh my God! Are you in pain?” …something is very wrong. No, it wasn’t TB and it wasn’t Bird Flu or pneumonia (I know because I made them check). I spent a week on outpatient treatment for 2 “severely infected” ears and severe bronchitis. I got nebulized in the mornings and the nights and had an IV antibiotic course daily for the week. My doctor said that my ears “looked like someone stuck 2 tomatoes on your head.” (I am still recovering after being at home in bed and at the hospital for a week.)

My dad once called me a “slob kid” for not appreciating these types of gifts; being able to take the trips that I do and see the things that I get to see. I do appreciate it and I am very grateful (of course to God, but also to everyone who went to so much trouble), but it was one of those experiences that I’m glad that I had, but wouldn’t want to repeat. I’m happy to be home.


Jewaira said...

Salamaat DG :-)

Q8Sultana said...

Hope you feel better!

I always have the kiss the ground feeling when I arrive in Kuwait...I'm kind of relieved I'm not the only one though :o)

Desert Girl said...

Allah ya salamich my friends. I am still wheezing after 2 weeks. Gotta go back to the doctor.


Joe said...

I'm an Australian who lived in Mersin for 6 years and I'm not surprised at anything you wrote. I chuckled a few times while reading your story although I'm sorry you got sick and hope you fully recover soon.

Anonymous said...

thanks for the tips...God bless you and take care.

Unknown said...

I wish to have a trip to Turkey's best states and cities. I love to visit Istanbul. en ucuz iphone