Although Meli’s wisdom is predominately reflected in her info-packed tours — she knows an astounding amount about Turkish history, art, and customs, as well as facts about the fascinating Silk Road trading routes — her smarts are also seen in the fact that she is fluent in a staggering seven languages, including English, Turkish, French, Uygur, Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, and Turkmen. We caught up with Meli to learn about her experiences on numerous American television shows, her work alongside renowned travel writer Rick Steves, and her thoughts behind being a tour guide in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, Turkey.
You’re gifted in so many areas (history, photography, and writing), how did you discover your fascination with guiding in places like Mongolia, Turkey, Greece & Central Asia?
I have been leading guided tours since 1968, but before owning my own company, I worked for travel agents who would hire me to guide groups of people who generally had many different interests. Trying to find the common denominator of interests to ensure that every guest was happy was always a trying task — no matter how hard I tried to please each person, complaints were unavoidable; one person’s dream come true is another’s nightmare — so I decided to create my own guiding system (MELITOUR, Special Interest Tours) that focused on leading tours with likeminded people who could enjoy each other’s company and the subject matter at hand. With MELITOURS, I design each trip according to the needs and wants of my clients, but this method has taken many decades to nail. Now, however, I can proudly say that I have acquired hundreds of happy travelers who want to do tours with me and my company over and over. All my clients start with several tours to Turkey, and then we continue to all the other countries where I organize explorations. Organizing unique and educational tours has become my lifestyle, and I love the challenge, but what keeps me going most of all is that my clients love what we offer them. I’ve got a good balance going!
How did you manage to turn your passions into a guiding profession?
When I was a teenager, I wanted to be the president of Turkey so that I could resolve all the problems of my beloved country. However, then it dawned upon me that the path to becoming the president was going to be long (and arduous!), and I was anxious to get my hands dirty; I wanted so badly to be in close contact with all the Turkish people from all walks of life. In combination with this anxt, after one year in Los Angeles as an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student, I realized that one other problem I had to solve was to get more Northern Americans acquainted with Turkey. So, at the age of eighteen, after putting these two musts in my life together — to teach my country to others and to keep in close contact with the Turkish people and their culture — the only thing that came to mind was to be a tour guide. In turn, I went on to get my guiding license all while finishing up high school still with the ultimate goal of attending a political science university so that I could study to become the president. By this point, however, it was too late: I had called in love with being a guide, and I quickly came to deem it a more gratifying job than presidency. I have loved being a guide since my first tour, and I can honestly and confidently say that I am so glad I did not become the Turkish president!
You come from a decorated past. Would you mind sharing how you came to learning seven languages?
I have to be honest: the languages I speak other than English and French are all Ural Altaic languages, which means they were easy to learn; they’re very similar in composition. That said, my main motivation for learning so many languages is that they help me to understand different cultures better, a personal feature that improves my tours. I am very proud and grateful that I can communicate with so many different people in their native tongue, and it makes me happy that my clients appreciate the personal touches that I am able to add to my tours because of my ability to communicate with the local people.
You have appeared numerous times on American television. What media experience stands out to you the most, and why?
My first TV experience was with NRK, Norwegian Television. We filmed a flotilla sailing along the Turkish coast. I was the script writer, the narrator, the dancer, sailor, and actress; in other words, it was a one woman show! Next, I worked with the BBC where it was my goal to sell a British-made steam locomotive to an English man. This loco was imported to Turkey in the late 1930s, and I thought that if I could do a tour with the locomotive, I could call it the Home Coming of 46105. Impressively, I sold the tour in no time, and I was really excited.
I thought the BBC might be interested in filming my fixer-upper project, so I contacted them. Sure enough, they were very interested, but there was a big “but”: they wanted the loco to be in working order to film her. I asked the Turkish Railways to fix this loco, but they said they no longer had the personnel who knew how to fix such pieces of steam equipment. I got very mad at the Turkish Railways (TCDD), and simply told them that I could do it myself then. In turn, I took the operation into my own hands and I fixed the 50-year-old locomotive with just the assistance of a manual. This impressed the BBC greatly — they appreciated my determination — so they filmed me during the reparations, turning the project into a documentary. Next, I worked alongside Rick Steves, which made my dream of introducing Turkey to North America come true. All in all, I have loved every moment of filming, and I especially enjoy the live programs where I get to answer spontaneous questions. That said, I must admit that I love guiding more than anything! Guiding is the best form of communication of all. Why? Well, I love to look into the eyes of the people I am communicating with…
Since founding MELITOUR, what has been the biggest highlight?
The biggest highlights have been when my daughter took over the business and when my son announced that he too will study to become a guide.
What is the best part of your job?
I love learning and teaching, and all the love that permeates around me when I am with people on my guided trips. Also, the freedom is pretty unbeatable! With guiding, I like that there is always something fun to do and interesting to see — there is never a dull moment —and I also love the inherent challenge of the job; between memorizing facts, keeping the group entertained, and traveling from place to place sometimes with a large group to keep track of, it’s a harder profession than you’d think. But, at the end of the day, I love it, and the best part about being a professional tour guide is that what I wake up to do everyday makes me happy!
What is the best tour you have ever lead?
The best tour I had was with a group of blind people. Their comment at the end was that I had made them “see” every detail by verbally bringing the sites to life. For a guide, no compliment could be more touching!