This will be the 37th country that I have visited in my lifetime to date on all six permanently inhabited continents with a lifetime goal of visiting 50 countries. This also will be only the second time I have visited a country in Asia (India was my first back in 2003/2004) and one that is predominantly Muslim as well.
But what makes this trip to Turkey all the more special for me is the fact that I will get the opportunity to see and explore this beautiful country with approximately 20 very special and fun young Turkish friends of mine, all in their early-20s, who I befriended during the summers of 2015 and 2016 when they lived and worked in Sandusky. These Turkish students came and continue to come to Sandusky and other resort areas across the U.S. as part of the Alliance Abroad Group's (AAG) Work and Travel Program, which is an organization based in Austin, Texas. These students work at local resorts such as Cedar Point, Kalahari and Great Wolf Lodge primarily as ride attendants, food servers, lifeguards and housekeepers. They pay for their own housing and live with fellow international students, all in Sandusky of course.
An AAG representative in Sandusky contacted me in the spring of 2015 to sign me up for its Friendship Family Program, which ultimately paired me up with two very fun students from Turkey for the summer of 2015. I quickly got to know my new Turkish friends fairly well, in addition to their roommates, most of whom were also from Turkey, as well as numerous other Turkish students who were living at other houses throughout Sandusky. My role, as a Friendship Family participant, is to basically serve as a “big brother” and “goodwill ambassador” to these students as they learn to live, work and adapt to life here in northern Ohio. I introduced them to friends and family, took them shopping, introduced them to American foods and customs, and took them to numerous places of interest across northern Ohio. I especially enjoyed teaching them how to play American games and outdoor activities such as Cornhole, miniature golf, trampoline jumping, canoeing and tandem riding for the first time in their lives. It was too much fun observing and participating in all of these activities with them.
Because of how much fun I had with these Turkish students during the summer of 2015, I signed up for the program once again during the summer of 2016 and quickly became good friends with even more fun and energetic students (guys and gals) from Turkey in what became one of the most fun summers of my life to date. So much so in fact, that I decided to visit as many of them as possible in Turkey in 2017, which I am currently doing. So, as you are reading this, I am exploring a new country and culture that is very different than our own, even though I feel very comfortable doing so after having spent so much time with my many Turkish friends in Sandusky.
It is going to be extremely fun, interesting and exciting traveling around Turkey with my Turkish friends meeting their friends and families and visiting exotic cities such as Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city at 15 million people and Ankara, Turkey’s capital and second largest city. But also visiting historic places like the ancient ruins of Ephesus (Ephesians from the Bible), which was home for a period of time to Cleopatra, St. John the Apostle, St. Paul and the Virgin Mary, who historians believe lived in Ephesus from 37 AD to 48 AD. I will write about my adventures to Turkey at a later date, once I return to Norwalk and recover from my jet-lag. Until then my friends, do try and do some traveling of your own to places here, there and everywhere.
Gary Richards is a full-time substitute teacher for Norwalk City Schools and Norwalk Catholic School and world traveler.