This week’s episode is transcribed from my archive of handwritten notebooks.
A Modest Proposal
Istanbul, Turkey; February 2013
The rock is special. I found it at Wadi Rum when I was camped alone on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere. It sparkled in the setting sun and grabbed a hold of my attention. Its crystal structure bent sunlight into all the colors of the rainbow. It looked, quite literally, like a droplet from heaven. I even thought it might be a diamond. But now I’m not so sure. In the plain light of day and the harsh glow of fluorescent light, the stone does not look so magical. It’s still nice and all, but I have my doubts. It might be technically worthless.
Nevertheless, my plan is to give it to Ms. B.. Ideally, the presentation of the rock should be both dramatic and romantic so that she remembers the experience for the rest of her life. A spontaneous overflow of emotion would be nice. Perhaps even some tears of joy. I’m hoping to push the metaphor of our love story long into the future and the rock giving game as a symbol of commitment is a human tradition that goes way way back into the past. The modern world has, of course, spoiled the narrative with crass commercialization, sentimental clichés and legally binding contracts but the underlying story is still a good one. Two individuals decide to become a single unit… a couple… a family. It’s a radical move. It’s an optimistic bet on the future of the world. The giving and accepting of the rock is the moment of destiny; the climax of the love story. It is the moment when the happily ever after begins…
Welcome to Istanbul! There is a convenient metro station below ground at the airport. It is cheap and efficient so that is the route we take into the city center. Ms. B. is exhausted after 20 hours of travel time from New York via Amsterdam. Dinner time now in Istanbul is breakfast time in New York and poor Ms. B. has been up all night. I, however, am as chipper as cricket in a field of flowering clover. It was a short two hour hop to get here from Amman, Jordan and I had a good night sleep and a healthy breakfast. I was also here in Istanbul a couple of months ago so I know my way around a little.
The metro journey to the Sultanhamet neighborhood takes a bout 45 minutes total. We have to switch from tram to train about halfway there. On the train we have seats. Ms. B. leans into me and rests here head on my shoulder as we exchange a few words but the train is crowded and the scene is not appropriate for much conversation. She nods in and out of consciousness as we communicate non-verbally. Ten thousand miles from my apartment on a subway in a foreign city but with Ms. B. asleep on my shoulder, I feel right at home. After we switch to the tram, however, we no longer have seats. It’s very crowded and we are lucky to find space to lean our backpacks against a center pole. We hold on with one hand each as the tram rumbles slowly through the busy city. Ms. B. keeps blinking her eyes open. She looks dead on her feet… like she might collapse. I look around at the many passengers on the crowded tram car. Ms. B. and I are both rather blonde and we definitely stand out amid the dark haired, olive skinned locals. Nevertheless, there is no sense of stress, discomfort or anxiety. The other passengers pay us little mind. Tourists with backpacks on their way to Sultanhamet is a fairly common sight on this tram.
When we exit the tram at the Sultanhamet stop, it is after sunset but not quite fully dark. The air is cold enough for snow and there’s a breeze. The people in the crowded streets are all bundled up against the elements. I know where to go because I stopped here in December. We have to cross the big plaza that opens up between the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque. Seriously, as big city plazas go, this one here is top notch… world class. With a great example of Islamic architecture on one side and a great example of Christian architecture on the other and the throngs of international tourists who flock to the space in between, it is like a metaphorical exclamation point on the possibilities of multiculturalism. I swear, sometimes it seems like my life has a stage director and this evenings performance is the opening scene of a blockbuster movie. As Ms. B. and I walk through the middle of the plaza with our travelers rucksacks slung over our shoulders, the lights flash on all around us as if to announce our entrance. First it happens with the colorful fountains just as we enter the plaza. And shortly thereafter the Aya Sofya turns on and so does the Blue Mosque. I know that in reality the lights are turning on because it’s getting dark and it is simply time for them to turn on. Nevertheless, it seems like the great Christian building and the great Islamic building have both turned on to shine their lights upon myself and Ms. B..
A couple blocks beyond the plaza and down an incline there is a maze of narrow cobblestone streets that are clustered with guesthouses, hostels, restaurants and cafes. No doubt it is a tourist trap but it is an extremely atmospheric one. We have a private room reserved in a hostel somewhere in the cluster. Hopefully, I can lead us right there… But alas, I get misdirected. We are not lost for long and the well-designed atmospheric neighborhood is lit up with lanterns like a magical wonderland but the overburdened and exhausted Ms. B. has little patience for magic right now. She just wants to drop her bags and take off her boots. “I thought you said it was this street?” she says.
“I was wrong,” I say, “mistaken. I think it’s around the next corner and up there on the left.”
“Are you going to write that down in your little notebook,” she says. “Mr. Ryan was wrong, mistaken. The great world traveler loses his way in tourist trap.”
“Yes,” I say, “I will be sure to mention it in my story.”
“You better,” she laughs, “because it’s important. It’s foreshadowing of the plot that lies ahead. If my guide leads me astray on the very first day, what can I expect from the rest of the journey?”
“I’m not the guide,” I say, “we are on this trip together. Equal partners all the way. And besides, I didn’t get us lost. I just took us on the scenic route. Look, it is right here.”
Sure enough, the hostel is right there in front of us. They have our reservation and the room is available and ready. Check in is easy and the room is quite nice for the very reasonable price we are paying. The door closes behind us and Ms. B. and I are finally alone together after two months of separation. How good is this life?
If we were wise, we would just stay in bed. Sleep right on through until the morning breakfast buffet. But we are not wise because we are hungry and the hostel has no room service. So we decide to go out for an evening meal. Truthfully, I don’t think Ms. B. really wants to go. She needs to eat but is more exhausted than hungry. She could stay in bed and I could bring her back takeout. But we have been separated for two months so we want to stick together now. Reluctantly, she decides to come with me.
So begins my date with a zombie. It’s only two and a half blocks from the hostel to the row of restaurants and Ms. B. staggers her way there like a drunk on the precipice of oblivion. The combination of jet lag and love-making has sent her consciousness into the stratosphere. Her body still functions but her brain is in never-never land. Only the involuntary motor skills seem to be functioning. I have my arm around her to slightly prop her up. There’s no traffic as we zig and zag down the center of the cobblestone streets. Somewhat incredibly, it begins to snow. Snow in Istanbul! How about that? The snowflakes catch the lights from the many many lanterns and the scene sparkles all around us. The scene could not possibly be more romantic. Ms. B., however is sleep walking through it.
Dinner is ridiculous. I’m all charged up like the energizer super bunny full of enthusiasm and joy de viv’. I want to eat, drink and smoke shishas long into the night. I want to tell Ms. B. my story. We’ve been separated for two months. So much has happened and I want to tell her all about it. I crossed the Mediterranean on a boat. I went to the Pyramids and Luxor and Petra. I climbed Mount Sinai and snorkeled in the Red Sea. I camped out on a sand dune in Wadi Rum. Oh yes. Wadi Rum. The place where I found the rock. The rock I now have in my pocket. Maybe tonight is the night I give it to her. A perfect snowy romantic night in Istanbul. I’m so very very excited. This restaurant could be the place of destiny…
Ms. B., however, is dead on her feet. Actually, she’s sitting down now or reclining. We are inside the café’/ restaurant. The seating is unusual with comfy cushions and couches. Ms. B. has immersed herself in the cushions such that only her head seems to float above them. With her eyes half shut and her failure to verbally respond, I wonder if she is listening to my long winded stories and fascinating explanations at all. Perhaps tonight is not a good night to give her the rock.
She perks up a little when the food is served but she hardly achieves a state that I would call consciousness. She picks at her hummus plate like she’s looking for a prize in the chick peas and responds to my verbosity with one or two word utterances. “Uh huh.” “Oh really?” “Nice.” But she doesn’t rise from the pillows and she doesn’t fully open her eyes. Meanwhile, I wolf down an appetizer, main course and desert as I regale her with tales of crazy cab drivers in Cairo, unscrupulous boat captains in Aswan and scoundrel weed dealers in Dahab.
Truthfully, I should skip the shisha and coffee. Obviously, she just wants to go back to the hostel and sleep. She pushed the hummus around on the plate but hardly ate any. Her eyes are narrow slits. She nods off occasionally but then catches herself. Any sane person would pay the bill and head out. But I can’t help myself. I’m in the middle of a story… building towards the climax. I can’t stop now. I have the rock in my pocket. I have to get to the part about the rock. And there is so much more to tell first. So I order the coffee and a shisha and start telling Ms. B. about the pyramids and Luxor.
Why not cut to the chase? There is no need for plots, sub-plots and character development. The real story is a simple one. I went to the desert and found a rock of great value and I want to give it to you as a symbol of my love. That’s it. Game over. End of story. No need to elaborate. But I can’t help myself. It’s like some kind of literary demon. I feel compelled to tell the whole damn story before I give her the rock. She has to understand why. She has to appreciate the significance. And good ol’ Ms. B. She just sits there and takes it. She nods in and out of consciousness and does her best to listen as the torrent of words and shisha smoke swirls all around her.
We are paying the bill and getting ready to leave the restaurant when I tell her about the beaches of Nuweiba and my inspirational swim in the Red Sea at sunrise. On the way out the door, I tell her of the ferry boat journey across the Red Sea to Jordan. Finally, as we are standing in the romantic snowy street outside the restaurant, the story of my journey reaches the part about my hike in Wadi Rum. My tale is interrupted, however, because Ms. B. turns a peculiar shade of green and collapses to the ground.
She’s all right. She just feinted. It’s been a long 24 hours. As I help her back to her feet, I get my bright idea. She won’t go along if I ask her so I just do it. I lean over and push my shoulder into her guts, scoop up her legs and throw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes. It’s only two blocks to the hostel, I can just carry her. Yeah, I know, the romantic way to carry a lovely woman is in front of you as you step daintily over a threshold. But this is not Hollywood, it is reality… And if you are going to carry a woman two blocks through the snowy streets of Istanbul, over the shoulder is a lot more practical. Anyway, Ms. B. doesn’t seem to mind. She hardly makes a peep as she wiggles a little to make herself comfortable. Actually, I think she sort of likes the drama of being carried through the streets of Istanbul by her big strong man.
So, here I am, walking down the street with Ms. B slung over my shoulder. Falling snow sparkles in the lamplight. As my feet plod slowly along, I tell Ms. B. the story of my hike in Wadi Rum. I tell her I found a precious stone and the stone has sacred power. My hike to find it was like a quest in an ancient legend. Giant stone outcroppings rose up all around me and the confusing trail criss-crossed several befuddling intersections of stone and sand. I was lost and then found and then lost again. I ended up sleeping alone on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere but that dune turned out to be the promise land because that is where I found the precious stone.
As we reach the hostel, I start talking about the journey within the journey. Our room is on the second floor but the stairway is wide so I continue carrying her. Don’t you see… the journey to Wadi Rum is like a microcosm of my longer journey to the Middle East. And both of those journeys are a microcosm of the even longer journey of my whole life. It was my destiny to find that stone in the sand dune and it was my destiny to find you at this stage of my life journey. I’ve been wandering forever Ms. B. and the only time I ever feel at home is when I have you in my arms… I put the key in the lock with my left hand and kick open the door to our room… All I’m trying to say is; I love you forever and I want you to have this stone as a symbol of that love. I lay her down on the bed, pull the stone from my pocket and present it to her dramatically.
She is, of course, out cold. Sound asleep. Snoring in fact. Zzzzzzzzzz. She has probably been sleeping since she feinted. Maybe even since the restaurant. Oh well. I guess I will give her the rock another time. I put it back in my pocket and proceed to make her comfortable. I remove her shoes and outer wear and tuck her into the covers.
The next morning she is her usual chipper self again. The hostel has a breakfast room and lounge area on the top floor. It has big windows all around for panoramic views of the city. We go up there about 10:00 am to find a rather substantial breakfast buffet. There are about ten tables and only one of them is occupied. We pour ourselves some coffee and bring it to the far table on the side of the room facing the Bosphorous River. We sit and drink a little coffee first before attacking the buffet. The scene is almost fantastical. It doesn’t snow much or often in Istanbul but it does on occasion. Last night’s sprinkling clings to everything like a slightly faltering cloak of invisibility. Even the boats on the river have thin layers of sparkling white dust. The couple at the other table leaves and Ms. B. and I are alone in the lounge with our coffee and our perfect view. Now is my chance. I have the stone in my pocket. The moment of destiny is here.
“Just out of curiosity Ms. B.; how much of the story I told you last night do your remember now?”
“Is this a quiz,” she says, “you know I don’t like quizzes first thing in the morning.”
“No, it’s not a quiz. I’m just curious. Do you remember the part about my hike in Wadi Rum?’
“I remember the one armed taxi guy who drove a stick shift and smoked a cigarette while weaving through Cairo traffic,” she says.
‘Well good,” I say, “I’m glad you remember something. Now, how about Wadi Rum? There’s a sand dune I slept on… a stone I found. Ring any bells? Do you know what I’m talking about?”
“Honestly honey,” she says, “it sounds like a great story. But if I know you, it’s probably a long one. So why don’t you tell me after we get our food. I’m starving.” She pushes back from the table, stands up and heads for the buffet.
I follow her to the buffet table where we find an incredible feast. Really, there is enough food to feed an army; and good food too. We pile our plates with olives and cheese and bread and hard boiled eggs. There is yogurt, fruit, and oatmeal as well but not enough room on our plates. We will have to come back for round two. We make our way back to the isolated table with Bosphorous view and sit down to eat. At this point, the stone is practically burning a hole in my pocket. I want to give it to her and be done with it but I have lost my momentum. I’m slightly off balance. I eat an olive and a piece of cheese. Ms. B. cracks a hard boiled egg with a spoon and starts peeling off the shells. After a few moments of silent attention to the egg, she speaks. “Wadi Rum?” she says with a smile. “You were going to tell me about hiking in Wadi Rum. That’s in Jordan right? The Lawrence of Arabia place?”
“Yes,” I answer, “it’s the Lawrence of Arabia place in Jordan. And I had an incredible experience there.”
“So tell me about it,” she says, “I’m wide awake and all ears now.”
But I never get the chance. Before I utter a word, the army arrives to eat the buffet. There had to be a reason for all that food. About 15 young, college aged, Europeans come charging into the rooftop breakfast lounge and completely transform the atmosphere. The Wadi Rum Diamond story will just have to wait. Instead we make plans for our first full day in Istanbul.
Oh what a day it turns out to be. There’s so much to see and do in this city we hardly know where to begin. But the Grand Bazarre is fairly close to our hotel so that’s where we go first. In case you are unfamiliar with it, the Grand Bazarre is an extremely elaborate maze of independent shops and stalls overflowing with handicrafts from all over Turkey. It is so big and so complicated, you can quite literally get lost in it for hours. Yeah sure, it’s a tourist magnet and a little pricey. But it has become a tourist magnet for a good reason. The quality and quantity of items for sale is absolutely mind boggling: rugs, fabrics, pottery, lanterns, clothing, spices, sweets, glass, metal, jewelry and more. It’s not nice to make comparisons, but it kind of makes your typical American Corporate Mall that has the exact same stores as every other typical corporate mall seem kind of pathetic. I, personally, am not much of a shopper. But wandering around the Grand Bazarre is more like a full on human sensory experience than a typical trip to the store to buy more shit.
Indeed, Ms. B.’s purchase of a cashmere scarf is like a one act play in the game of life. After extensive negotiations wherein Ms. B. demonstrates her superior bargaining skills, a friendly merchant reluctantly agrees to sell her the scarf for only 30 lira (15 bucks) even though he originally wanted 120 lira for it. It was a great sacrifice on his part but he was willing to lose a little profit for the sake of cross-cultural friendship. And besides, Ms. B. seemed a sweet person and the first sale of the day at a loss would give him luck throughout the rest of the day. Of course, two days later, we see the same scarf for only 10 lira on the other side of town. But the scarf we bought was special because it came from the Grand Bazarre and included in the sale price was the merchant’s virtuoso negotiation performance and the perfect background setting for the transaction.
Similar silliness unfolds with my rather spectacular cup of coffee. Without a doubt, the most expensive cup of joe in the entire nation of Turkey and considering the shot glass size of the serving it may very well be the ounce for ounce most expensive cup of coffee in the whole wide world. But at least it was served to me in a fancy porcelain cup and was accompanied by a piece of chocolate and a glass of sparkling water. I sit back in the comfy chair in a super chic café in a tucked away corner of the Grand Bazarre and enjoy my coffee and chocolate. Am I living the dream or what? Ms. B. is there to capture it all in a photo so there is documentary proof that the dream is indeed real.
Later in the afternoon, we go for a visit to the Istanbul Archaeological Museum near the ancient palace. No time today for an interior palace visit but the grounds outside are enough to dazzle the senses. Very tall trees with nesting cranes perched on top, walking among them seems like a wander in the wonderland. The archaeological museum itself is also rather incredible. There is enough amazing ancient Greek and Roman sculpture and bas relief to keep an artist like Ms. B. and a stone hound like me entertained for hours. We round out our perfect day with a delicious dinner at a crowded local restaurant. By the time we get back to our room, we are exhausted and happy from our fun filled day. The rock… the rock? What about the rock? No doubt the special rock was burning a hole in my pocket throughout our day’s activities but an appropriate romantic opportunity never presented itself. Should I give it to her now that we are back in our room alone? Nah, that would be tacky. I’d rather make love and wait till tomorrow.
The following day, we are faced once again with the Istanbul dilemma. There are so many things to see and do in this city, the biggest problem is deciding what to do next. I was here for a few days on my own in December and I rushed from sight to sight trying to take it all in. I barely scratched the surface. Now I’m here for a few more days with Ms. B. and we have the very same problem. When the choices are infinite, what do you choose to do? Actually, what I’d really like to do is just stay in Istanbul for a full year and not feel rushed to do anything. I want to meander slowly around its varied neighborhoods; cruise the Bosphorous on its public ferries, sip tea and coffee in the infinite café’s and sample the great number of restaurants and eating establishments. Perhaps, then, the Istanbul dilemma is a metaphor for existence on the whole planet earth. Time is limited and the choices are infinite. How is it possible to make the most of what’s out there in the limited time we have?
After another substantial breakfast in the rooftop café of our hostel, we begin the day at the Blue Mosque. This stunning example of exquisite Islamic architecture is open to visitors of all faiths when prayers are not in session. It’s a Muslim place though so, of course, Ms. B. has to be “oppressed” by a head scarf and we both “god forbid” have to remove our shoes before entering. But such cultural restrictions are more than worth it for a chance to see the dazzling interior. Wow, just wow… mind blown! You should see it yourself if you ever get to Istanbul. Afterwards, we head to the Aya Sofya to balance out our exposure to religious architecture. But the lines are so long at this impressive example of Christian construction that we decide to postpone our visit to the interior for another day. Nevertheless, simply walking around the massive building is enough to make us gasp in awe at the feats that are possible when dedicated humans work together for a common purpose.
With our spiritual observance behind us in the morning, we head to the hip neighborhood of Beyogolu near Tacksim Square for a little hedonism in the afternoon. The walk to get there leads us through several fascinating neighborhoods and markets and across the spectacular Galata bridge which spans the Bosphorous River. Beyogolu itself is the land of excellent restaurants, cool café’s and funky bars where modern educated Turkish people do their best to imitate Europeans. It’s actually much more reasonably priced than the tourist trap world of Sultanhamet where we are staying though it doesn’t seem as foreign or exotic as the rest of the city. Indeed, Beyogolu has a minor case of the globalization disease as a fair number of Starbucks, McDonalds, Burger King and Pizza Huts are sprouting up amid the independent places. What is wrong with this world? Why do bland models of boring success necessarily replicate over and over and over? In the natural world, originality thrives. Civilization, however, seems to prefer sameness. Oh well, the disease is only minor in Beyogolu so I only hope it doesn’t get worse. Ms. B. and I have a fine time people watching, coffee drinking and window shopping. We are a little early in the day for bar hopping but we prefer cafes anyway.
In the evening, we return to the atmospheric neighborhood near our hostel for dinner. With cobblestone streets, hanging Turkish lanterns and chic little restaurants scattered here and there, the scene is rather romantic. We choose a fairly fancy place that I would never eat at alone. But I have Ms. B. for company and the rock in my pocket so I’m hoping for the proper setting in which to make my dramatic presentation. The friendly host/owner greets us politely at the entrance and shows us to a table by the window. The restaurant is not crowded and the nearby tables are empty so we will have some nice privacy. There are checker table cloths and candle sticks along with fine silverware and expensive place settings. A warm gas-fired heater glows in the background. We peruse the menus and order the food. Wanting to appear the big spender on this very special night, I order the specialty plate of the restaurant and encourage Ms. B. to splurge on anything she likes. When the waiter departs, we settle back in our seats and engage in a pleasant conversation about some of the day’s events.
“You sure looked good in that head scarf at the mosque,” I say, “now I want to see you in a full burqa.”
She laughs. “Yeah right, that’ll be the day.”
“From burqa to bikini,” I say, “the B. in your name is for beautiful no matter what you are wearing.”
“And how about those fishermen on the Galata bridge?” I say. “What a bunch of characters.”
“Yes,” she says, “they should have their own sitcom. But I still don’t want to eat their fish sandwiches.”
Somewhere during the conversation, I manage to segway into my Wadi Rum story. But of course I have to tell her the long winded version of it. It’s a curse I tell you, a curse. I can’t help myself. I tell her about the long ride in the overpriced taxi from Aquaba on the coast to the town of Wadi Rum. I tell her about my failed attempt to negotiate for a jeep and a guide to take me into the desert and my resolve to head out hiking on my own. I tell her about how I get lost and found and lost again on the confusing but very scenic trail. I finally end up camping out alone on a sand dune in the middle of nowhere. But oh what a camping spot it turns out to be. While sitting on the dune and watching the sun set, I discover the rock. An amazing, beautiful, incredible rock…
Just as I say this, however, we are interrupted. The waiter arrives with my specialty plate. Little did I realize that the service of my specialty place would involve such a performance. I am, you might say, upstaged by food service. An enclosed bowl of pottery is place on the table before us and lit on fire. After it burns for a moment, it is smashed open with a mallet to reveal the cooked food inside. The diners at the other tables clap their hands in appreciation. Wow. Cool. What fun! Meanwhile, a family of six enters the restaurant and takes a seat at a nearby table. Atmosphere ruined; my rock presentation will have to wait.
After our fine meal, we walk to a nearby smoking lounge to partake of the traditional water pipe. Here they call them nargilas, in Egypt they call them shishas, back in the States they call them hookahs and I have even heard the term hubbly bubbly. Whatever the name, I have acquired a taste for them over the course of my travels in the Middle East. In Egypt they were so common and so very cheap, I had one almost every day. I could pay a dollar or two for a coffee and a shisha and sit for hours soaking up the local atmosphere of the tea shop. Here in the tourist trap of Sultanhamet is a bit different. The nargila alone costs 8 bucks and there are no locals… only tourists. Nevertheless, the cafe is nicely designed and the seating is comfortable; the nargila is pleasant and with Ms. B. for company, who needs local flavor. Of course I can’t give her the rock in such a smoke filled traditionally male setting. But it makes me happy to see that the love of my life is adventurous enough to join me for a couple of puffs at such a place.
Later that night in our room, I finally give her the rock. I know, the setting is lame and my presentation is pathetic. But I have carried the darn thing around long enough and I just have to be done with it.
“By the way,” I say, as she emerges from the bathroom after brushing her teeth. “I saved that rock I found in Wadi Rum. I want you to have it. Since you are such a talented jeweler, I thought maybe you could turn it into a ring or a necklace or something.” I pull the rock from my pocket and hand it over.
She looks it over carefully for a minute or so and says, “it kind of looks like a tiny piece of broken glass. Like maybe from a shattered windshield.”
“Oh great,” I say with obvious disappointment, “I wanted it to be a symbol of my love for you. If a diamond is forever, what the hell is a broken windshield worth?”
She laughs, but then smiles. “Oh honey, don’t worry,” she says, “even broken glass can have tremendous value. Especially if it is a gift from you. I will wrap it in silver as a necklace and wear it close to my heart. Let’s just say that the power of our love can transform ordinary broken glass into the one and only Wadi Rum Diamond…”
Of course you know how the story ends.
We both live happily ever after….