Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Mysteries of China

Culture is an incredible thing. It shapes who we are and how we see the world. As a second year MBA student at Thunderbird School of Global Management, I feel truly blessed to be surrounded with people from around the world. By living, working, and playing with these people, I have come to build some incredible friendships. One of my favorite experiences at Thunderbird occurs when I learn something new about a friend's culture. I treasure those moments as I feel I have gained a unique insight into my friend's background.

Not too long ago, I needed to get a document signed by several of my classmates. Given the incredible cultural diversity of Thunderbird, I found myself speaking with several of my Chinese classmates. I gave my first friend the piece of paper and a pen to sign. My friend placed the pen on the table and signed with his own pen. My second and third friends did the same. At this point in time, I knew that something was going on that I did not understand. I asked my friends why they had not signed with my pen and they responded that in China, it is unlucky to sign one's name in red ink. How interesting!
I just read a great WallStreet Journal article about a Thunderbird professor who recently made a cultural blunder in China. I do not want to give away the story, but my favorite part of the article is at the end when Professor Goddard's Chinese colleagues respect him by each giving him a penny. Please read the article... WallStreet Journal

Joel Montgomery

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Take a Balloon to Mars (Turkey)

The peaceful darkness of the cave hotel was broken by the harsh sounds of the alarm, beckoning me to rise from my deep slumber. My eyes opened but were unable to see anything until I stumbled to the lights in the bathroom. At 5:00am, I waited in the coolness of the early morning when the first call to prayer began at a nearby mosque. The echoed tune had an eerie tone as it bounced off the rock faces around me. I arrived at the lift off area and noticed the blackness towards the east starting to transform into pinks and purples. Multicolored balloons quickly followed the path from infancy to full-blown adulthood as their bellies filled with hot air. Our balloon floated just above our heads, yet lacked the strength to lift all 14 passengers. The pilot unleashed six-foot flames from the nozzles in the center of the balloon in order to heat the air and yet the sphere seemed determined to stay earthbound. Finally, the balloon relented and we traveled mere inches above the dewed-covered soil. Inches turned into feet and feet turned into yards and yards compounded so much so that the cars below turned into the Hot Wheels of my childhood.

We were airborne over 2,000 feet above the Martian landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey. Below I could see the Fairy Houses with their teepees casting strange shadows in the early morning light. Our pilot descended deep into a canyon and we passed numerous Pigeon houses that had been hollowed out long ago to facilitate the collection of
“natural fertilizer.” Thousands of years ago, a huge volcanic explosion endowed the area of Cappadocia with the necessary volcanic ash required to form the most unique rock formations I have ever witnessed. The shapes seemed to have been a gift from God, immune from the forces of nature. How could erosion create such masterpieces?

After an hour and a half of exploring the bizarre Turkish landscape, our pilot initiated the balloon landing procedure, which simply consisted of gliding along in the wind until a suitable flat area was found. Unfortunately, the wind did not want to cooperate and our gliding turned to crawling. Now that it was airborne, the balloon no longer wanted to return to Earth. Finally, we found a suitable spot in a farmer’s field just outside of Göreme. The pilot dropped a line and several workers from the tour company dragged us to an open area. We slowly descended, yards turning into feet and feet turning into inches. I was selected to join the crew and help tame the balloon. We lifted it unto a trailer and joined the passengers in the basket as they tried to force one particularly stubborn corner into place. With the basket secured, our next step was to pull down the proud balloon. We grabbed a rope that connected to the top of the balloon and pulled. The balloon fought back but without the continued supply of hot air that formed its lifeblood, the sphere could only postpone the inevitable. With all passengers on firm ground, we toasted our flight over the Martian land with glasses of champagne.

Joel Montgomery

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Thursday, August 2, 2007

Cons & Cars Part II (Turkey)

As I pass through the automatic toll on my way to work, a loud buzzer warns me that my transmitter didn’t register. I must have been driving a little too fast through the toll. I continue my commute through Asia and thank God that I am not five feet to my left on the other side of the barrier where thousands of people are sitting, waiting to cross the bridge onto the European side of Istanbul. As the collection of European cars and an occasional Ford travel North with me, we engage in a dance of which I have become all too familiar. A speedy Mercedes quickly makes up the distance between my rear and his front bumper. He signals his desire to continue forward at a faster pace than I am going and I oblige by quickly moving into the middle lane. A few minutes later it is my turn to flick my lights as a red Renault creeps up a hill. This dance continues at all hours of the day on Turkish motorways.

After passing the Renault, I arrive at the second toll of my journey and am surprised when the angry buzzer yells at me for a second time. Now, this is not normal. My fingers make their way behind the rearview mirror but are saddened when they are unable to find the goal of their pursuit. My transmitter has suddenly disappeared. Has Houdini come back from the dead to posses my innocent black Opel? Soon, my thoughts turn to the seedy parking lot attendants that I have grown to loathe. It has to be them. I continue on my journey trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. Maybe, the transmitter has fallen down somewhere in the car. As I pull into work, I quickly do a search in the car, trying to find this little white box that I have taken for granted all summer. As I peer under the seat of the car, I do not find the transmitter but another clue in the mystery that envelops my morning. I find a sack full of food wrappers, including two discarded Ayran containers. Aha!!! Further evidence supporting my theory that someone has indeed entered the car and stolen my transmitter. I share the news with my boss and we return to the dilemma that has plagued us since the first incident with these crooks… there is no other parking lot near where I live. The only other option is to try and park on the street, which is even more of a crapshoot. Begrudgingly, we arise at the conclusion that we must continue to deal with these dishonest folk for another 15 days when my contract expires.

The next morning as I walk towards the parking lot, I get a sense that Houdini has moved on and decided to let me be. As I expected, the transmitter magically reappeared overnight. I call my boss and he responds with a traditional Turkish saying. “God makes you lose and find your donkey.” Certainly, you value even the most invaluable items once you have rescued them from being lost.

Joel Montgomery

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Cons & Cars (Turkey)

Con artists live among us, no matter in which country we live. Throughout my travels, I have received my fair share of con attempts and my time in Turkey has been no different. The simplest cons have been a gift from some of those road warriors in yellow, the taksi drivers. Although the majority of my travels in taxis have been “con free,” there are those drivers that can’t help themselves when they see a foreigner. The first trick occurs when a driver will decide that a passenger is not savvy enough to notice that he has not started the taximeter over from the last fare. Currently, taxis cost 1.73 YTL during the day (6:00am – 12:00am) and 2.46 YTL during the night (12:00am – 6:00am). If the taximeter does not display the proper starting rate, then the driver is probably trying this simple con. The second trick occurs when a taxi driver charges unsuspecting passengers the night rate instead of the day rate. In Turkish, day is Gündüz and night is Gece. The taximeter will blink between the current fare and either Gündüz or Gece, depending upon the time of day. This has been attempted on me several times, but by simply pointing to the taximeter and saying "Gündüz" (Gewn-Dewz), the drivers have stopped the car and reset the fare. A third taxi trick occurs when the driver refuses to turn on the taximeter and desires instead to haggle over the price before or after the trip. Although this has never happened to me in Turkey, Tom Brosnahan at suggests that you point at the taximeter and firmly say Taksimetre (TAHK-see-MEHT-treh). If all else fails, choose another taxi. Taxi drivers are required by law to use the taximeter.

While these taxi cons may result in a 5 or 10 dollar loss, this next con that occurred to me was subtler and cost me a lot more money. Parking on the street is a nightmare here in Istanbul. Thankfully, my employer has been gracious enough to pay for a monthly parking lot. The cost is 200 YTL/month in the neighborhood of Beşiktaş (I live one block away from the Çirağan Palace). Recently, I returned to the US for my sister’s wedding, but before I left, I filled my tank full of gasoline. Upon my return, one week later, I noticed that as soon as I was pulling out of the parking lot that my empty light came on. The strange thing was that my odometer read only 81km, when I can usually get at least 400km per full tank. Anytime I purchase gasoline, I always restart the odometer to count how many miles (or kilometers) I have traveled. I thought I had filled the tank before I had left on vacation, but who can remember 9 days later? Luckily, I found the receipt that confirmed my suspicions. I had indeed filled the tank the day before my departure. Although I could do nothing to the attendants, I did have my boss call them to let them know that WE KNEW what they had done. Hopefully, that fact will keep them from doing it again. Looking back on it, the only way that they would have been able to use so much gasoline without changing the odometer is to have siphoned it out of the gas tank. Here in Turkey, gasoline is extremely expensive. The minimum octane available is 95 and the current price is 2.96 YTL/liter.

A few weeks prior to the previous incident, I went to pickup my car and it was not there. These same parking attendants were supposedly fixing one of my tires that had gone flat. That assured me that the car would return any moment from the tire repair shop. About half an hour later, the car arrived and they charged me 20 YTL. I still do not know if the fix was legit or not.

Joel Montgomery

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Friday, June 29, 2007

Bearing North to the Black Sea (Turkey)

On a particularly steamy Sunday afternoon, my friend and I decided to take refuge in my air-conditioned Opel and do some modern-day exploration. As we made our heading northward along the shoreline, we noticed lots of men swimming in the waters to our East. A few women dotted the crowds of men but not many. It was interesting to see people lying on the cement as if the sand within had not been previously hardened by lime and water.
As we left the congestion of Istanbul behind, the scene transformed into a small beach village. Thick trees lined the streets, holding hands to form a tunnel of green. Heads popped out of the open windows of old wooden houses that had seen better days. Our progress up the coast was swift until we hit the junction of three streets. Chaos ensued. A bus full of passengers barely missed hitting me by mere centimeters. Pedestrians casually weaved their way through the mess, as us less fortunate souls in modern vehicles watched longingly. The bottleneck was largely a gift from some selfish driver, whose parked car had reduced this small two-lane road by half. After passing this second major obstacle in our route, my friend and I were met by an additional impediment to our journey: the reverse tails lights of ten cars moving in our direction. We decided that this was not the ideal path for us to follow and so we turned around to find another way up the coast.

In a country with very few street signs, we felt lucky to have actually found one that pointed toward our destination. Now whether or not its sister signs were in place was a different tale, but at least we had our first bearing. I gladly made my way up the mountain, away from the chaos at the water’s edge. To our good fortune, we found a newly paved road with another sign marking the continuation of our journey.

Passage along the ridgeline was much more pleasant. As we closed in on the Black Sea, we noticed that for some strange reason, cars were suddenly pulling off the main highway into wooded alcoves. Some cars even seemed to be stuck in the rolling hills just off the highway. What would tempt these drivers to leave the newly laid pavement to brave the vegetation beyond? It took me a while to realize the goal they sought… a picnic. Now that I think about it, I have passed many a happy Turkish family picnicking in all sorts of places: in city parks, on the grassy shoulders of busy roads, at the beach, on the cement walkway next to the Bosphorus. As an American, I must admit that we Americans are truly picnic snobs. We rarely picnic anywhere that is not designated an official picnic area with proper picnic benches. The Turks on the other hand are much more creative, for them, the possibilities are endless. They don’t need a sign to tell them that they are in a designated picnic area; they picnic when and where they want.

Back to our adventure… Far off in the distance, the Black Sea highlighted the horizon in a deep shade of blue. It began as just a sliver and quickly grew thicker and thicker as the land retreated below the circling tires of our car. My friend and I had finally reached our objective and to our delight, an old fortress stood on the shoreline, waiting patiently for a pair of explorers. We headed straight for the stone tower to peer down on this newly found land. We lowered our heads and traveled up the stairs that countless soldiers had climbed centuries before. From the lookout we spotted beachcombers in every direction. At the water’s edge, swimmers danced in the white frothy waves. Hiding in the shade of Roman arches were several Turkish women in full-length burkas. Off in the distance, ships seemed to follow one another towards the only exit for hundreds of miles, that same exit that hundreds of years before this very fort had been built to protect. The Bosphorus Strait.

Joel Montgomery

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tea with Atatürk (Turkey)

“Çay? Kahve? Su?” questions the tea woman about every 90 minutes. Most businesses in Turkey have an employee whose primary responsibility is to serve tea and coffee throughout the day. Tea is served in small tulip-shaped glasses with sugar cubes on a small saucer. The larger glasses have a handle while the smaller ones do not.

I have not traditionally been one to drink much tea or coffee, but I don’t have the heart to refuse the eagerness of the tea woman as she knocks on my door. My mom was shocked to hear that her son, who has never been much of a tea or coffee drinker, was suddenly drinking two cups of each of the caffeinated beverages daily.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern Republic of Turkey. He made major reforms to the country, including adopting a modern constitution, separating mosque and state, and changing the alphabet from Arabic script. Turks love Atatürk and they proudly display his image everywhere. A good friend of mine who used to be in the U.S. Navy mentioned that two Americans in the Navy were jailed because they urinated on Atatürk’s statue. The U.S. government has still been unable to secure their release. When visiting Turkey, make sure to never say anything negative about Atatürk.

Joel Montgomery

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Dinner and a Movie (Turkey)

Last night, my friends and I traveled to Istiklal Street near Taxim Square for a Meze dinner followed by a screening of Ocean's 13. Meze is a typical way of eating in Turkey. It consists of 3 courses. In the first course, the waiter comes by with a large wooden tray with about 36 different cold appetizers that include everything from artichoke to brains. As you make your selections, the waiter shuffles the little square plates like one of those cheap plastic puzzle games with the square missing. The second course is the hot appetizers, followed by the final course of main dishes. Diners often drink Raki, an anise-flavored alcohol, with their meal. My friends and I dined outside, enjoying the cool night air and the sound of dozens of Turkish conversations around us. "Turkish Mariachis," as my friend called them, serenaded patrons in the background. Our Turkish neighbors hadn't even passed the first course by the time we left.

At 22:00, we arrived just in time for the previews to begin. Unlike Latin America, where most of the theaters are brand new with "VIP seating" (Stadium Seating), this theater had seen better days. For twenty minutes, we saw commercial after commercial after commercial after... well, you get the picture. It was incredible. It was ridiculously long. Finally, after probably the 40th commercial, the preview began. That's right preview in the singular. After twenty minutes of commercials and one movie preview, the real movie began. 50 minutes later, the movie stopped midway for an intermission. Everyone left, visited the bathroom, bought a Coke, and had a smoke. 10 minutes later, the movie resumed right where it had left off. What a unique experience?!?

Joel Montgomery

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

On to the Sea of Marmara (Turkey)

Yesterday, I spent a whopping 2 Lira to board a ferry bound for Büyükada, the largest of the Prince’s Islands. The islands, located in the Sea of Marmara, are very popular with Istanbulers during the summer.

My adventure began at 8:30am as I jumped in a cab bound for Sirkeci, the theoretical departure point for my trip. When I arrived, I asked three separate people where the boat was and all I could understand was that I was in the wrong place and that I needed to be at a place called Kabataş. I called a friend of mine who told me that my new destination was very close to my apartment. I jumped back into a taxi and traced my steps back to the port. I arrived at 9:10am and the ferry had just left at 9:00am. The next ferry left at 10:40am. I sat in the weighting area and noticed how everyone was already lining up at the gate like racing horses. I decided to join them. At 9:40am, the race truly did begin. As soon as the door was opened, the pushing and running started. I joined in thinking they must know something I didn’t. We ran into the boat, and leaped up the stairs for the prime seats on the outer deck in the shade. I snagged a great seat next to the edge. During the next hour, more and more people showed up. Of course when the Americans arrived about 15 minutes before departure, all the seats had been long taken. After we had set sail, I noticed a woman standing with her young daughter. I decided to give up my seat and her husband placed his hand to his chest in the Turkish way of saying “thank you.” I went to stand by him and we struck up a conversation, although his English was not too good. We conversed the rest of the way and finally were able to find a seat after passengers had disembarked at the first three island stops. Sea gulls glided next to the ferry dive-bombing pieces of bread that passengers hurled into the air. A seventy-year old man followed the ferry on a jet ski as we closed in on our destination. He ramped up the waves created by the wake of the boat.

Upon arriving at Büyükada, my new friends and I decided to grab a bite to eat. Mehmet, the father, told me that he needed to briefly visit a friend of his and would be returning shortly. His wife, daughter and I were left eating by ourselves. We tried to communicate, but neither of us understood the others language. Body language would have to suffice. Upon his return, Mehmet acted as translator while we drank some Turkish tea. When it was time to pay, Mehmet informed me that he had already taken care of the bill. What an incredible act of generosity. I thanked him profusely and then we went our separate ways.

My first order of business was to acquire some means of transportation. Officially, the islands do not allow cars, but I did see a few while I was there. The options for travel on the island included renting a bike, renting a Phaeton (Horse-drawn carriage), or walking. I chose the former for 3 Lira/hour. The bike was not in the best shape, but it would do. I started my journey by following the road where most of the carriages were traveling. I figured they probably knew where they were going. Unfortunately, the bike would not change to the lowest gear, so steep hills were quite challenging. As I progressed up the side of the island, my view became more and more spectacular. Off in the distance were the other members of the Prince’s Islands along with the Asian side of Turkey. I circumnavigated the island and then decided to brave the steep climb up to a monastery. Up and up and up I climbed pushing my trusty bike along the way. “Why did the monks need to be at the top of the island,” I wondered. The beach is quite nice… AND closer. Finally, I reached the top and was rewarded with an incredible view. In order to enter the church, I had to put on some pants, since no one was allowed to enter with bare legs.

After returning my bike, I decided it was high time for some nourishment. I really haven’t drunk as much milk while in Turkey, so I thought it would be a good time to go dairy and get some ice cream. I chose the waffle cone that had been dipped in chocolate and coated with pistachios. I chose three flavors and traded my 5 Lira for the tantalizing cone. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the ice cream. This is the second time that I have given in to one of my weakness for ice cream and the second time that I have been disappointed. I don’t know what it is, but the flavors are not very strong.

After two hours of intense biking, I needed a nap. My first option was a bench next to the police station. I decided to continue my search when I saw a policeman holding a machine gun. Finally, I found some nice grass where other Turks were lazing in the shade. I found a nice spot and drifted off to sleep. When my cell phone alarm sounded, I knew it was time to head back for the ferry. I waited in line along with the hundreds of people around me like a herd of cattle. When the gates were opened we all began to run towards the ferry to stake our claim. It seems that no matter where you are in the world, people are basically the same.


Joel Montgomery

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Cultural Highlights (Turkey)

Each day is full of new cultural adventures. Here are some highlights:

Haircut – What a seemingly simple task to get a haircut. You arrive, sit for a few minutes, chat a bit about current events, and leave a little lighter. Imagine that you have to go to a new barber and all you can say is, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I don’t understand,” and “I am American.” I entered the Turkish barbershop as I always do, with my hair a little too long and the usual air of patience. I don’t know what it is about the barbershop, but unlike so many other aspects of my life, patience pervades the experience. Anyway, back to the story, my barber and I spent the first few minutes trying to agree on what I actually needed. I pointed at the sides and top of my hair showing different lengths with my tweezer fingers. I thought we were in agreement until huge chunks of hair started to fall in my lap. I must not have been clear. I stopped the Turkish barber and showed him once again the length of hair to cut off, but this time using my newly cut locks as a reference. After the cut, he washed my hair twice and then dried it. Now I must admit that I am not used to other people washing my hair, but I decided that the old “When in Rome” adage might be a good rule to follow. I have to say that in spite of the language barrier, my Turkish barber cut my hair better than many of the barbers that have scissored me in the States. The experience was well worth 15 Lira.

Traffic –A few days ago, I was in a bus that was driving down the main road that runs parallel to the Bosporus and we suddenly came to a standstill. Now traffic in Istanbul is not an unusual occurrence, but this time, there seemed to be no way to pass. A bus with its blinking hazard light sat diagonally, blocking the outgoing lane, while a smaller truck was blocking the incoming lane. Obviously, the bus had been involved in some kind of accident. Just when I began to embrace the fact that we were going to be sitting for a long while, a policeman arrived on the scene and motioned for the truck to back up and make room for the incoming traffic. The truck driver slowly navigated the small spaces around him, following the police officer’s every order. Just enough space had been cleared for a police bus to pass. The officer returned to his comrades and the vehicle sped on by, leaving the scene in chaos. By some miracle, we were able to pass the wreck.

Driving – Driving etiquette in emerging markets is slightly different than in much of the developed world. Now New York City has its quirks, but Istanbul has been a whole new experience. Firstly, there are no exit numbers or road markers at all. Now that doesn’t really matter when you are driving in your hometown, but for people not accustomed to the city, it’s extremely helpful. Directions here are similar to much of Latin America, where landmarks are the key. In Costa Rica, we always joked that directions in the countryside went like this: “Go 400m and take a right at the lemon tree. Continue on the dirt road until you see a herd of cattle. Take a left, drive 200m east past the church…” Anyway, back to Turkey, the second quirk about driving is the invisibility of lanes. Unlike the West, staying in lanes is optional, especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Every evening I spend at least 30 minutes maneuvering through the traffic towards the bridge that crosses the Bosphorus back into Europe. Even though there are only three official lanes, Turkish drivers take advantage of every possible inch of asphalt. I guess the logic is why stay in three lanes when there is room for five.

Food – Plain yogurt is a staple of meals here in Turkey. They even have a homemade drinkable yogurt that is essentially regular yogurt mixed with water. Pistachios are the nut of choice. They are everywhere, in the ice cream, on the ice cream cones, in the desserts, in salads, etc. Fruit and vegetables are incredibly fresh here in Istanbul. Cherries, apricots, green plumbs, watermelon. Often a plate of fruit is served after meals in Turkish restaurants. The lamb here is incredible! In fact, most meat is very tastefully prepared.


Joel Montgomery

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Arrival (Turkey)

Istanbul is the gateway between Europe and Asia. The city is a unique blend of west and Middle East, traditional and cosmopolitan, mountains and water. It is at the center of this juxtaposition of two worlds where I will be spending the summer working for a small plastic bottle recycling company. I live in Europe and work in Asia.

The start of my trip was not a good one. My British Airways flight landed in London’s Heathrow airport just as my connecting flight left for Istanbul. I thought that would be my one irregularity for the trip, but to my dismay, my bags, which had not been returned to me during my forced overnight stay in London, had not arrived at my final destination. Having dealt several times with these types of situations in my past travels, I immediately headed for the lost baggage counter as soon as I caught wind of the impending reality. Luckily, I beat the rest of my 21 fellow fliers who were also forced to weather the previous night in London.

Traveling much lighter than planned, I caught a "Taksi" and gave the driver the piece of paper that supposedly gave directions to my destination. Most of the letters were familiar, but several of them were quite foreign. How do you pronounce such letters… Ç Ğ Ş Ü? Although, I had no idea what the words containing these strange characters meant, the driver appeared to understand.

As the driver made his way to this mysterious destination, I was amazed at the incredible number of mosques. Minarets broke up the skyline in all directions like huge crayons. As the taximeter closed in on the estimated fare my friend had given me, I knew we were close. Then again, maybe we were lost. We stopped at a taxi stand and the driver stepped out to ask directions, or so I thought. He returned with a purposeful step and off we went again. I finally arrived to find an office that overlooked the Bosphorus Strait from the mountainside. What an incredible view. Terracotta roofs seemed to provide a path towards the water’s edge. Barges and ferries made their way up and down the waterway that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. On the far shore, evergreens filled in the gaps between the houses and the deep red of the Turkish flag shook in the breeze. I was finally here after having left over 50 hours ago.


Joel Montgomery

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