Imagine you've worked as a professional tour guide for a dozen years — with groups from all around the world — and then you get recruited to lead your first group of Rick Steves travelers, and on a uniquely Rick Steves itinerary to boot. Veteran guide Ayşegül Ünlü (pron. osh-a-goul) got to experience this first-hand as a "rookie" Rick Steves guide in 2009, leading our groups through her native Turkey.
Tell us a little about yourself, Ayşegül. When did you get turned on to guiding?
I grew up in Antalya, Turkey, a charming coastal town which has since gotten much bigger. I took some guiding courses and exams prior to my university study, so I could lead tours during my summers off from school. I earned a degree in environmental engineering, but I quickly realized that guiding appeals to me the most!
If you could have Americans see just three places in Turkey, which would they be?
Istanbul, because it shows travelers so much of modern Turkey and also its Ottoman history. Ancient Aphrodisias — an American-funded excavation site — is one of the best preserved Roman settlements in the country, yet not very touristed. Cappadocia is not only important because of its geological fairy-chimney phenomenon, but also because of the historic Christian sites.
And what lessons about Turkey should visitors take home with them?
Turkey is both modern and traditional, everywhere side by side. It may sound contradictory at first, but both concepts richly coexist thanks to religious tolerance, belief in democracy, and respect to elders and other basic values. We owe this harmony to Atatürk's guiding principle of Secularism, and the legacy of the many pre-Turkish cultures that have shaped this place.
After many years of guiding other kinds of tours in Turkey, in 2009 you began leading Rick Steves' tours. What are your impressions?
Rick Steves' tour members are very open to ideas and values. They are also respectful, and very eager to mingle with locals. I was a little surprised at first, because I had not led any tours of this kind for Americans before! The Rick Steves tour philosophy — and having tour members like this — enables me to enjoy the teaching and social experience to its full potential. That pleasure in my work makes me a more effective guide. So, by leading tours for Rick, I am having my wish fulfilled.
What is your favorite place to visit outside of Turkey?
India is my favourite "other" place, with its people, the food, natural beauty and colorful religious events. As it says in their touristic brochures, it is 'incredible India'.
What Ayşegül won't tell you — here's how her tour alums rave about her:
"Ayşegül demonstrated to me many of the traits of a true leader. She shared a vision of her country with all of us that was meaningful and accessible. She engaged each individual in dialog that was relevant. She was playful, humorous, patient, commanding when needed, but most often an intelligent, professional, passionate ambassador for her country. She made the trip stellar!"
— Michelle in San Bruno, CA — Best of Turkey in 13 Days