A Modest Proposal

This week’s episode is transcribed from my archive of handwritten notebooks.

1940

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.

Continue reading

Turkish Surprises

image

image

It’s kind of wonderful sometimes to have your misconceptions smashed. Reality appears and it’s nothing like you imagined it to be. This happens to me in Turkey a lot. I’m not sure where my inner image of Turkey came from but it does not coincide at all with the Turkey I actually experience. We were going to skip Antayla altogether. It’s another big city of over a million people but its not famous or trendy or hip like Istanbul. I imagine a crowded, smelly Third World port city with too many humans and too much garbage per square inch. We want to go on to Olympos; the small isolated coastal village famous for its laid back vibe, but we arrive at the bus station in Antayla in the late afternoon. There’s no minibus to Olympos until tomorrow. We will have to stay here in the big city for a night. Conveniently, there’s a metro tram right outside the bus station. We climb aboard and get taken to Kaleici, the old harbor side neighborhood which is the beating heart of town. Wow! Holy smokes! This place is way better than we thought it was going to be. A multileveled, winding maze of walkable cobblestone streets is cut into the hillside above the harbor. This delightful little labyrinth is lined with restaurants, pubs, cafes, boutique guesthouses and pensions. We find a cheap place to stay in the midst of it, drop our bags in the room and head out to find the sea. Ms. B. has never seen the Mediterranean. I haven’t seen it since I flew from Cyprus to Cairo a few months ago. I swear to the universe, it’s like a miracle for the eyes. The cobblestone network releases us onto a sea side patio up on a cliff above the water. Our timing is perfect. The sun plops down into the western horizon. The pure blue waters sparkle in the afternoon glow. A Mediterranean Sunset; what a great place to be.

The next big ticket item on this years traveling agenda is our incredible plan to hike a section of the Lycian Way. But the trail begins in the vicinity of Fethiye on the coast and we are presently in Ihlara in the very center of the country. It’s a very long ways from here to there but we do have time. It’s also true that there are fascinating and fun places to stop en route. No hurry, no worry, chicken curry… It shall be an enjoyable odyssey by public transport across the Turkish landscape. Continue reading

The Canyon of Cappadocia

image

image

So, here I am on a tour bus, feeling like a rebel school kid on a mandatory class field trip. “Okay everybody,” says the guide in her best bubbly American cheerleader voice, “it’s time for introductions. Please tell us your name and country when I point to you.” I have an urge to smash the window, leap outside and run away… run away. It’s not as if I dislike tour guides, I just feel better when they are not around. Honestly, most of the guides I have met in my life have been friendly and kind human beings and this one today is no exception. I know they have difficult jobs and I can appreciate their day to day struggle to earn a living. I also understand why people choose to go on tours. Traveling in foreign countries is complicated and paying someone to lead you around and explain things simplifies the process. Nevertheless, in my opinion, there is a fundamental problem with the tourist business in the context of the modern economy and that fundamental problem drives me a little bonkers. The problem is difficult to articulate but I would describe it as the commodification of the traveling experience. Human to human cultural interaction and genuine personal exchange are replaced by a business model designed to generate income as efficiently as possible. Thus, when you visit a foreign country as a tourist, you don’t make friends and experience the way of life and culture. Instead, you pay a fee and get taken for a ride through an amusement park. The actual experience is basically the same no matter where in the world you go: Thailand, Turkey, Mali or Ecuador. You sit on a crowded minibus, you listen to a hyper friendly local speak English with an amusing accent, they follow a script of historical information interspersed with occasional jokes and you stop to take photographs at the specially designated attractions. I don’t mean to be superior or judgmental or condescending. But if this is traveling, I’d rather stay home, save my money and read about it on Pat Ryan’s travel blog.

The Ilhara River Gorge in Cappadocia is advertised as the Grand Canyon of Turkey and it is, therefore, very high on my list of places I want to see. Unfortunately, its not very easy to get to from Goreme. Although the town of Ilhara at the entrance to the canyon is only 50 or so kilometers away, there is no direct public bus connecting it with Goreme. Instead, you have to take a minibus to Nevesehir, another bus to Aksaray and then change to a third bus that eventually arrives in Ilhara. This roundabout journey can take 3 or 4 hours instead of the 45 minutes a direct trip would take. When I ask for info about it, everyone says I should sign up for the green tour which includes the gorge in its itinerary or rent a car to see it on my own. Of course those two options are inconsistent with my modus operandi so I convince Ms. B. that we should take the indirect public bus route. As we are checking out of the hotel, however, the friendly guy at the Sunset Cave tells us of another option. One of his friends who runs a Green Tour has empty seats because it’s the off season. For the same price as a public bus ticket going the long way around (15 lira each) we can catch a ride with a Green Tour and get dropped off in the town of Ilhara. As a bonus, we get a free stop at the Pigeon Valley Lookout and the Derinkuyu Underground City along the way. In other words, Ms. B. and I find ourselves as not quite willing participants for part of a packaged tour. Continue reading

The Crossing

image image

image

The city is divided in two by a big wall.  There is a no man’s land guarded by a U.N. contingent.  Lots of signs warn that photographs and video are not permitted in the controlled area.  I hand my passport to the Turkish immigration officer before I walk through the passageway that is open between the walls.  He stamps it and gives it back.  I walk the passageway and hand my passport to the Cyprus immigration officer on the other side.  She looks it over and hands it back.  “Don’t you have to stamp it?”  I ask.

No,” she says, “this is not a border.”

My last week or so in Turkey can only be described as glorious.  How much fun is one human allowed to have? I visit the ruins of Aphrodisias and in my opinion they are the best of the bunch.  Another big wow!  The stonework is comparable to Ephesus but there aren’t the crowds so it’s much more atmospheric.  I go to the Travertines of Pamukkale.  If you have ever seen a tourist brochure for Turkey, you have probably seen photos.  Thermal hot springs on a blazing white calcitated hillside.  An all natural surreal wonderland that dazzles the senses.  Mother Nature is more marvelous than us humans can possibly comprehend.  I visit the ruins of Hierapolis and Laodicia and continue on to the Mediterranean coast.  How much do I like the coast?  It’s so beautiful that I am tempted to bail out on the rest of my planned adventure and just spend the next few months there.  I stay in Fethiye and Olympos for a few days each and the landscape between them is almost too good to be true.  But alas, the road calls me onward.  I know I will be returning to this paradise with Ms. B. in March.  The pyramids of Egypt and Petra in Jordan await.  It’s time to get my ass in gear and make the crossing to the other side of the Mediterranean. Continue reading

Ruined…

image

image

My Turkish is bad, but his English is worse.  When he charges into the back room to retrieve my laundry shouting, “Fuck it, Fuck it, Fuck it, Fuck it!”  I am fairly certain that he does not fully understand the meaning of the words he is exclaiming…

It is a fundamental rule of the traveling universe that the closer you are to a “great wonder of the world,”  the more likely it is that you will be ripped off, cheated, insulted or otherwise abused by the local population.  I’ve observed and written about this phenomena many times before.  I’ve seen it in Macchu Picchu, Angkor Wat, Kilimanjaro and Bourbon Street.  If you think about it, the reason why this happens is fairly understandable.  “Great wonders” attract visitors like protons attract electrons.  At first the visitors are seen as a welcome opportunity injecting capital into the local coffers.  But after a while, familiarity breeds contempt.  The more annoying, disrespectful and rude tourists that locals have to deal with, the more they start treating tourists like invading microbes.  It’s a downward spiral that perpetuates itself.  That’s why, in general, I prefer the not so famous places.   But that doesn’t mean I avoid the “great wonders” all together.  On occasion, I will go forth amid the throngs of tourists and prepare myself for the inevitable mistreatment.  Thus I find myself on a bus to Selcuk because I want to visit the world famous ancient ruins called Ephesus.
Continue reading

The Masters of Stone

image

image

Truthfully, I’m not a sculptor but there is no word for stonemason in my Turkish/English  dictionary.  Actually, I’m not even really a stonemason in the modern understanding of the word.  I don’t pour foundations or lay block or mix mortar or work with concrete at all if I can help it and in the present day American economic system, that’s what the job of stone mason is all about:  mixing and using “mud”.  I realize it’s only a theory and there’s a good chance I’m wrong.  Indeed, when I try to explain this to people back home, some people look at me like I’m crazy.  But I believe that the force of gravity should  be the primary bonding mechanism for truly great stonework.  Mortar and concrete are cheap substitutes for good old fashion hard skilled labor.  In a way, this issue goes to the heart of the fundamental problem with the entire economic system.   The goal of capitalism is an idealized notion of the concept of economic efficiency.  Instead of paying humans to do the work of carving stone and moving stone and carefully fitting stone together.  We pay machines and use lots of fossil fuel energy to pulverize stone and then add chemical bonding agents.  That way the “stone” can be poured or sloppily glued together and a lot fewer humans have to be employed in the process.  The long term cost is in the pollution and the collapsing structures as mortar gives way to gravity.  But capitalism is built upon the principle of ignoring the long term cost for the sake of short term gain.  Do it now, do it the easy way, get your money and then get out.  As I wander now among the  2500 year old ruins of the Roman Empire, I bow my head to the masters who have gone before me.  If only I lived in a world where creations such as these were still economically possible…

image

The journey by bus from Istanbul takes about six hours.  During the last two hours the bus follows the length of the Gallipoli peninsula until we finally cross the straights of the Dardanelles on a ferry and reach the nice little sea side city of Canakkale.  If you are a student of history, you may be aware that one of the most important battles of World War I was fought in these parts.  Over a hundred thousand young men lost their lives as pawns of greedy politicians who wanted to expand their empires.  The Ottomans won this particular battle and thereby retained the independence of the nation now known as Turkey.  But ultimately, they lost the war and the rest of their former empire was carved up and divided by the victors (England and France).  Some people would suggest that much of the problems in the Middle East today derive from the Europeans’ successful conquest or colonization of the region now known as the Middle East during World War I.  But I don’t know about any of that, Im just a stonemason.  These days, you can go on a tour of the battlefields of Gallipoli and visit the monuments to those unfortunate men who were the victims of that particular manifestation of the human psychosis.  I, however, decide not to do that.  I’m not traveling to learn about war.  I’m here to see the stones. Continue reading

Playing the Travel Game

image image Trying to navigate my way around a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and almost no one speaks English is more fun than any video or board game ever invented. There are challenges to overcome and prizes to be gained.  Every time I make it to a new destination, it’s a bit like getting bonus points or advancing to the next level of play.  Of course, there are occasional scoundrels, good fer nothing’s, and troublemakers I have to deal with and I do sometimes get ripped off.  That’s like losing points or getting hit with a penalty… All part of the game.  But more often than not, people I meet are helpful and they assist me in my movement through the complicated maze of the foreign country.

I arrive in Istanbul without luggage thanks to my missed connection in London.  That’s a minor setback but nothing to get upset about.  Who needs luggage anyway? I speak with the friendly folks at Turkish airlines and fill out a form so they can track my belongings down.  Unfortunately, I don’t have a room reservation to put down on the form because I’m winging it, so they won’t know where to send my stuff if they do find it.  “No worry” they tell me, “just call us with claim number after you find a place and we will send it where you are.” So here I am in Istanbul with no luggage or room reservation.  Now what?  Let the game begin…

Continue reading