Surfing, Theoretical Mathematics And Jesus

Me and the Queen MaryFirst morning in El Salvador. Got the drop on three waves, didn’t ride them long. Out of shape and out of practice. Surfing is decidedly not like riding a bike. You lose skills when you don’t use them. But it was fun. As a buddy I met at Popoyo in 2009 says, “El Tunco’s a nice easy right off the point.” And that’s exactly what it was: as it breaks off the point it’s then a long slow roller even novices like me can ride. They call it Sunzal or El Tunco (the name seems to be interchangeable by both the surfers and the locals). El Tunco refers a large lump of rocks on the beach that used to look like a pig before a hurricane came in and rearranged them. Sunzal seems to be a local word of indeterminate origin, but most likely Spanish and English that refers to the sunset. And this beach has some of the best I’ve ever seen.

If it’s an easy right off the point at low tide at high tide it’s a different animal. Then the swells get bigger and on occasion a nice tube forms, “but don’t count on it,” Alejandro, a Brazilian Spanish teacher from Los Angeles would tell me later. I paid my respects to the wave and paddled ashore.

During the midday hours I sat with Alejandro and had a few beers. He gave me the run down of every wave and break within fifty miles and then gave me the low down on the locals: who’s who and the local rules.

“I’ve been coming to Sunzal for seven years now. I know all these guys,” he said.

“See him,” he points, “the super skinny guy with the bleached orange-blonde-blackish mess on his head?”

I nodded.

El Tunco Rocks, Once Resembled a Pig, Since Then Rearranged By a Hurricane“Boris is the local big-talker. He’s always catching the biggest waves, out on some cove south of here or north of here, but no one ever sees him surf Sunzal. Everyone knows he’s full of shit, but everyone loves him because he’s fun to party with and he’s a good friend. When guys get kicked out of the house by their girls for surfing too much, he always lets them crash at his place.”

“You see that guy over there, with the hammer, carrying the lumber up the roof?”

“Sure do.”

“He’s Hugo. Watch out for him. He’s the local asshole, and bad-ass surfer, who’ll cut you off a wave in a heartbeat just to prove that it’s his wave and his country. Last year he crashed into a tourist surfer and broke his board in half, bloodied the guy up too. If you even see him near your wave, go somewhere else.”

Our waiter came by and asked me if I wanted another beer. I waved him off, “another beer and my day would be ruined. I’m hoping to surf this evening.”

He smiled and left me an Alejandro to talk.

“Our waiter, that guy, you know he’s real quiet, soft-spoken-like. His name is Jesus. That guy shreds everyone, he can practically spin a board 360* and land on it and surf the rest of the wave.”

“Not possible, Alejandro. You’re starting to sound like Boris.”

“No, Juan Pablo, listen to me. He’s that good. He won the local championship last year here at Sunzal and some people are trying to get him to go pro.”


It’s December and the tides are variable. The big swells come between March and October. Current high tides seem to be arriving at around four-ish in the afternoon. By that time the shadows lay long towards the east. The waves, water and sky in the west, however, are suffused with an ur-orange that I believe is the Platonic form from which all other oranges derive their orangeness.

What a Ride!The wave at Sunzal is long, 350-400 meters at its best. It’s smooth, good for pros and beginners alike. This time of year, December, it’s not a huge wave or even a big one—it certainly doesn’t have much of a tube, that part of the wave a surfer rides when he or she is totally covered by water and then shoots out of it. It’ll curl a little bit on occasion but not every set or even ever five to seven sets.

Fun fact: waves usually come in sets of three waves or five waves. And sets usually come in swells of five and seven. First: they are prime numbers. Second, apparently there is science behind this. It’s called a Mandelbrot set, named after Benoit Mandelbrot the father of fractal geometry and math. Brian Rothman recently called the Mandelbrot set, “the most complex mathematical object in existence. [It’s] a two-dimensional figure whose coils, sea-horse shapes and blobs rimmed by jewel-like clusters of islands defy any coherent description. It is made up of infinitely many resemblances of itself, no two exactly alike, which appear from its depths when one zooms in and magnifies any part . . . and it serves as a sublime tech mandala.” One philosopher even claimed the algorithm behind the Mandelbrot Set might actually be one of Plato’s eternal forms.
Mandelbrot Set
Bet you didn’t think you’d get higher math and philosophy while reading about a guy surfing in El Salvador?

Life is paradox and there is order in randomness, as fractals demonstrate.

Speaking of fractals, the high tide was in, the sun was a gorgeous gold, and bikinis pranced up and down the beach. (Oh, you didn’t think I wasn’t looking? How wrong you are! I may be recently divorced and uninterested, but I ain’t fucking dead.) It was time to surf.

I put on my board shorts, rash guard, grabbed the Queen Mary, walked half a mile down the beach and paddled out.

After an extensive paddle—hey, you try paddling a twelve foot board three hundred yards out into heavy surf—I sat on my board and surveyed the scene. There were about 15-20 other surfers spread out over two hundred meters, two within fifteen to twenty feet of me. I stood a good chance of a.) catching a wave and b.) not killing anyone with my ginormous surfboard due to inexperience. After a few minutes the first set came in. I paddled hard, but missed the first wave. Got my board back, on it, paddling, caught the wave but couldn’t stand—wiped out. Board shooting straight into the air and me thrashed and twirled by the waves.

Panting like an overheated dog I grabbed my board, climbed on and lay there for a moment catching my breath.

Playa El TuncoDigression: ever wondered why surfers have perfectly sculpted bodies? Upper bodies and lower bodies in perfect proportion for men as well as women? Well, it is the perfect workout. You swim with your arms and legs. You do core abdominal work when you are up on the board maneuvering. Yoga, too. Don’t believe me? See just how flexible you are when you get thrashed and tumbled by a wave like clothes in a clothes dryer.

While panting on the board awaiting the next set I began mentally composing an angry email to my ex-wife. Then I got angry at myself.

“What a stupid fucking thing to do on a wave,” I muttered. “Idiot.”

While berating myself someone paddled up to me.

“Como las olas Juan Pablo?” asked Jesus, “how’re the waves?”

“Great,” I managed to say without sound too exhausted.

Jesus, I’d come to find out, talking to him earlier while we waxed our boards, had lived in the United States for about a year. He’d been a dishwasher first and then a cook in South Carolina. Having earned enough money to buy a house and set up a surf school in El Salvador he grabbed a bus to Mexico and then home to El Salvador, only to return to a girlfriend who’d had left him. Unbeknownst to Jesus, his father had died when he was on the bus from Charleston to the Mexican border. He worked as a waiter now and spent all his free time surfing.

“The waves,” he told me that afternoon, “they’ll never lie and they never cheat.”

Playa El TuncoHe pointed towards the water. Another wave was coming, this one picture perfect, streamers coming off the top in a fine mist just like a snow banner blowing off Mt. Everest. I shook my head, not quite ready, still panting a bit.

Jesus smiled and then attacked the wave. He paddled hard then cut right so effortlessly it made me envious. On his smaller board he rode, cutting up and back, then left and right all the way inshore for twenty or thirty seconds. It was an elegant, beautiful performance. How anyone could call what Jesus did that afternoon “shredding” as if it were a violent act, like putting an end to a sheaf of top-secret documents and not call it a ballet on water is beyond me.

Speaking of, I had finally caught my breath.

I was ready.

The next wave rolled in and up. I paddled furiously, the futility of maneuvering my container-ship sized surfboard clear in my determined grimace. I barely caught the wave, stood up, but got on the board too far back. Unbalanced, I slipped backwards into the worst of the backwash there to twirl and roll underwater, salt water invading my sinuses until chaos abated. Have I mentioned having long hair in the surf sucks, too? Too often I come out of a wave with hair covering my face, salt in my eyes and another back-wave crashes into my face, which is what happened in this case too.

I shook it off. Literally.

Would number three be my wave?

No. I couldn’t get ready in time so another surfer made the drop, riding smoothly all the way in. It looked so easy, why couldn’t I?

Then I missed number four out of sheer incompetence.

Gentle reader, are you sensing a theme yet? Let me spell it out for you if you haven’t: I’m not a terribly good surfer. In fact, I suck. But I love being in the big water, feeling its power, respecting it, honoring it.

Alas, my breath was all caught up again and there I sat on my ginormous board when wave five swelled up, fat-like and pretty big too.

Looked to be a possible seven footer. Taller than me by far.

I paddled hard, furiously determined to get the drop on this one. And then it happened.

There is no thought, only pure action, I’m one with the tidal forces of the wave, which I am allowed to momentarily harness. I stand up on the board, just ahead of the curl, the wave’s crest. Moving my right foot slightly, much as a bird will move a single feather to turn left or right, I make the cut back for the first time and stay ahead of the break for an unfathomable ten to fifteen seconds. Just me, on the board, completely of the present, no past, no future. The eternal now.

SunsetI took the wave as far as I could, dropped into the water and walked out with pride.

I rested on the fine black volcanic sand of Playa Sunzal. Time passed as it inevitably does. Shadows grew longer across the beach and the shift from late afternoon gold to early evening orange happened at the fine line between subconsciously unaware and overt.

I got up and grabbed my board just as Jesus walked by. He smiled and said, “that was a good ride, Juan Pablo, like a pro.” And then we walked silently into the setting sun.

On Characters With Character

Books of the Chinese Silk RoadThe last few weeks have been tough. I’ve been battling a recurrent infection, one that seems to crop up once a year. It’s pretty dreadful. By the time it is in full swing I am lethargic, full of malaise and generally feeling sorry for myself. I told myself, last time it occurred, that I would go to the doctor immediately once the symptoms appeared. Due to America’s horrible health-care system I had to wait two weeks to see a specialist, which was more than enough time for the symptoms to worsen. I walked into the doctor’s office with a significant gait in my left leg. He looked at me and shook his head. “Why didn’t you come earlier,” he asked.

“Had to wait for approval from my HMO. Took a week. You were booked the next week,” I said.

The doctor looked at me kindly and said, “next time call me and I’ll prescribe you something before you come in, okay?”

He’s certainly one of the best doctors I’ve ever interacted with. He has an exceptional bedside manner, listens to everything I tell him, queries me fully, often time spending upwards of thirty minutes with me. For a doctor that’s priceless.

The prescription is for a heavy anti-biotic. The kind where you spend 10 minutes in the sun and it leaves you feeling like you’ve crossed the Taklamakan without water.

As a side note, I’ve read on several occasions that ‘Taklamakan’ means ‘goes in, doesn’t come out,’ in an ancient Chinese, or possible Tokharian dialect. Having flown over the Taklamakan several times and circumambulated its edges, I have to say that I agree.

One May when my father and I were in Dun Huang, the last great oasis before the Taklamakan, I got to thinking about Xuanzang, a 7th century Buddhist monk who sneaked his way past the T’ang guards at the Jade Gate, into the Taklamakan. He then proceeded to cross it, disproving its meaning as a toponym, but no matter. He then crossed the Tien Shan, chilled at a Buddhist monastery in Samarkand–just a few years before the Arabs irrupted into Central Asia, and then did a backwards dogleg into Afghanistan and India where he spent a decade plus collecting Buddhist manuscripts to take back to China.
Dun Huang Dune
Buddhism was not new to China, but it’s safe to say its roots were nothing compared to those which dug deep after Xuanzang’s return to Chang’an, the capital of the T’ang empire. What course might Chinese Buddhism taken were it not for Xuanzang’s efforts at travel, discovery and exploration? And what course might my life have taken had I not been exposed to Chan Buddhism in China in 1999?

This diminutive monk spent his remaining days translating the Buddhist corpus is a spartan monastery cell, eschewing all glory and worldly goods and his good works echo down the centuries to my own time and my own debt of gratitude to him.

Now that’s a character with character. Central Asia is littered with them, from the monstrous Timur–aka Tamerlane, who left a trail of human skulls from Damascus to India–to the poignant Omar Khayyam.

I tend to think about people like Xuanzang and Polo and ibn Battutah when I am feeling sorry for myself. Sometimes it works: I feel better, realizing my pedestrian concerns, minor ailments and the general discontent I feel with my post-modern life do get the better of me.

But sometimes it fails: I want to be Polo, or Rabban Sauma, Wilfred Thesiger, people who lived a full life so far away from home. People who made the world their home, citizens of this great and tragic blue ball spinning off into eternity.

And then I get a text message and the world comes roaring right back at me.

Coining A Portmanteau

Earlier today I searched for a word that combined the following elements: wallowing and pouting, which connotes a depressive obsession with a percieved, but wholly unreal victimization. Some friends had some pretty funny answers, one of which was “Jesse Jackson” or “Rush Oxycontin Addiction Limbaugh.”

Now, I wasn’t looking for a person to stand-in as the word, but as it goes that’s fairly accurate. Alas, the best reply I got was a portmanteau, which is a defined as “a new word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings; “`smog’ is a blend of `smoke’ and `fog.’”

My pal’s word: poutrage. I had to laugh out loud at that, as it describes the character I’m writing about perfectly.

Any suggestions from your end?

(Not) Reintegrating

I’m doing my best to not reintegrate. I suppose it is easy right now as I am couch-surfing at a friend’s place, until I find something more permanent. (Not that I really want to, but I do need to replenish the bank account before I get on the road again.)

It’s weird being home. Nothing has changed. Nothing. And that is disturbing. People still make the same old arguments in favor of or against just about everything, politics included. Fortunately my friends have accepted the fact that I won’t reintegrate (they actually seem to appreciate it, albeit from a vicarious perspective) and the question they all ask is: “when are you leaving again? And where are you going?” Even my mom is intensely curious to know where I am going next. That’s also weird. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to reconnect with my friends, that there would be a distance between us–but so far (and it has only been a week) they seem not to care. Weird, but wonderful. Of course, they all want to know about Turkey, “travel tips, please?” And they all are fascinated by Lake Toba and ask all kinds of questions about it, but when I tell them how hard it is to get to they lose interest, which suits me fine. I hope the place remains undiscovered.

I can’t help but to notice, however, that as a society America loves to pride itself in ‘individualism’ and ‘personal liberty’ but remains one of the most conformist places in the world. All the cars are the same (SUVs), all the music is the same, all the clothes are the same and all the TV shows are the same. Now, that’s not to say that other places in the world don’t share this society-wide need to conform. (It’s human nature in my opinion.) Many of the places I visited were just like this, especially East Asia (but not India, not by a long shot). Turkey had this to a degree, but in Istanbul, a city of 15 million people, it was pretty easy to get lost amidst those in the Turkish counter-culture. Scandinavia had this on one level, but also the level of tolerance and acceptance there of differences was pretty profound too.

It’s also quite expensive to re-integrate, even as little as I have. I got the paperwork for my car up to speed (including insurance) and got a cell phone number (but only a pay as you go, as the telecom companies can go fuck themselves if they think I am going to sign up for a two year plan!). I’ve reintegrated in a few other minor ways, but all in all, my life isn’t so different than it was three weeks ago. And that is good. It leaves me hopeful that I’ll be able to stay put for a while, complete my writing project and then head back off into the world.

Lastly, as much as my friends missed me, it’s obvious that life went on without me. It’s odd, beyond words, really, to sit down and catch up with them and see that their lives didn’t change at all–and in the grand scheme of things mine probably didn’t change so much either–and also to realize I was gone for a full year.

It felt like it was yesterday I was catching that plane to Singapore. Just yesterday I was floating down the Mekong. Just yesterday I was sailing across the Indian Ocean.

And tomorrow? Tomorrow looks as bright as it did six months ago. Full of promise. Full of joy. And full of friends.

That is right and good. As it should be.

Balkan Pickup Lines

The Balkan EkspresThe train pulled out of Sirkeci Station at 10pm sharp, bound for Bucharest. Within an hour the slow rocking of the train put me to sleep. Sometime around 300am the train stopped, the conductor rapped on the door, shouting “immigration” and the passengers filed out in a stupor. Passport stamped I climbed aboard and went back to sleep. Thirty minutes later there was another sharp rap on the door: “customs!” The officers tore my cabin apart, like cops back home with a warrant. Finally, after fifteen minutes of pillage they left, satisfied there was no contraband in my meager belongings. I fell alseep, only to be awakened again thirty minutes later by a huge, semi-toothed Bulgarian border officer. “Passport?”

I handed it over. He glanced at it long enough to realize I was American, snorted and handed it back. “Okay,” he said, “good night.”

“That was easy enough,” I thought and went right back to sleep. I don’t know how much time passed, but once again, I was awakened by a hard thump, followed by two quick knocks on my door, like rapid gunshots.

“What now!” I exclaimed in frustration.

“Eet iz passport kontrol,” came a woman’s voice behind the door. I fumbled with the lock on my door as images of a snaggle-toothed, heavy Bulgarian matron danced through my head. I flipped on the light, and slid open the door.

“Holy shit!” I said. She was 5’11″ with tight blond spiral curls falling down off her shoulders. A perfect row of white teeth shined in the light. Her blue border guard uniform did nothing to hide the magnificent shape of her body as my eyes were drawn to the large gun on her shapely hips.

“Passport, pleaze,” she said in a deep, but feminine voice.

“Damn, you’re hot,” before I realized what I was saying. She held out her hand in expectation of a passport, which I quickly produced.

“You must be very tired,” she said with that self-deprecating Slavic humor I know all too well.

“No, darling,” I said in my best Texas drawl, “you are a fiiiiine piece of work.”

My brain was screaming, “shut the fuck up you sleep addled fool.”

She flipped through the pages of my passport.

“You have been to many strange places,” she said, “Uzbekistan? Iran?”

“Yup,” I said, “you want to come with me some time?”

“Hey! Hey! Hey!” my brain howled in indignation. “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I ignored it.

She reverted to her ascetic bureaucratic stare, but not before I caught the hint of a smile, just enough to know I’d hit the right chord.

“How long vill you stay in Bulgaria?” She asked.

I wanted to say, “had I known it would be this nice, a long time,” but discretion–and the gun on her hip–got the better of me. I only managed to sputter out, “not long enough. Just passing through to Bucharest.”

“Eets a pity,” she clucked, “Bulgaria is beautiful country.”

“Yes it is,” I replied.

“Eenything else Meester Kelley?” she asked, handing back my passport.

“Your name? Phone number? Email?” I blurted out.

“WHAT THE FUCK! YOU DON’T ASK A WOMAN WITH A GUN FOR HER NUMBER YOU ABSOLUTE IDGIT,” my brain shrieked in protest. My temples froze up like I’d just wolfed down an ice cream cone and there was a crashing and grinding of gears in my head.

She pulled out a notepad, jotted down her number and email, handed over the piece of paper saying, “Irina, my name is Irina. Come back to Bulgaria. You vill like,” and then she walked down the hall and off the train. I was astonished. I’ve certainly never been accused of having any amount of charm. And I’ve always been horribly shy around women. I have no idea what came over me. Lack of sleep? Lunacy? Does it matter?

The Americans in the next-door compartment laughed uproariously.

“Duuuuuuuude,” said Dominick, a young twenty-something on a gap year journey across Europe, “that was hilarious. And she was hot!”

“Yeah, she was, huh? Who knew a border guard could look so good?” I said.

“So, are you coming back?” he asked as the train pulled out of the station.

I grinned triumphantly, puffed up like a rooster in a barnyard. “Who knows?”

I soon fell into an uninterrupted sleep, dreaming of blue uniforms and blond curls.

“Turkiye Cumhurriyet!” He Said. “Turkey Is A Secular Republic!”

Having a Beer on The Marmara Shore: IstanbulAs is plainly obvious by now I am back in Istanbul for a brief stop-over before I head for points south west, maybe Konya, maybe Seljuk, Priene and Ephesus. We’ll see what happens. The lease in my flat was up on the first of May, so I have been holing up down here in Sultanhamet, instead of the Taksim area. So, unless I fall in with a group of twenty-something futbol fans in town for the UEFA Cup (Donetsk-Shakhtar beat Weder Bremen, by the way) my social opportunities are a bit limited right now. I did have a wonderful conversation about art and architecture the other night with two lovely Norwegian septuagenerians, on their once a year European ‘art vacation’ as the ladies called it. They were really charming. But that’s about it.

And then, serendipity always seems to intervene.

Yesterday I was strolling along the sea-walls on the Marmara shore taking some photos of an area of Istanbul I’ve neglected when I stumbled upon these two gentlemen. The saw me taking photos of them and called me over in English.

“Did you get good photos of us,” the young one asked.

“Sure did,” I said, showing him the shot in the view finder.

“Seet down,” said the older one, “seet down, please.”

Never one to turn down Turkish hospitality, I obliged. We made our introductions (the young one was Emre and the older one Ishan). Ishan was vocal and expressive. His hands flailed around. As our conversation soon turned to politics–as it inevitably does in Turkey–Ishan made obscene gestures every time Erdogan’s name was mentioned. He was on the coarse side, but he was also generous and warm, offering beer at every chance and practically gave me his entire pack of smokes. It was Emre, soft-spoken, with warm almond colored eyes, who translated, as Ishan’s English was about as strong as my Turkish.

Ishan loaths Erdogan, his party and the religious fundamentalism that has changed Turkey, “for the worst,” as he said, in the last ten years. “If it is the last thing I do, Erdogan will leave office before I die,” he said.

“Turkiye Cumhurriyet!” he kept repeating, like an imprecation, an incantation, a ward against the evils of fundamentalism I’d just witnessed in hither Anatolia. “Turkey is a secular republic.”

“There were times,” I told Emre and Ishan, “that I felt like I was in Iran. All the women were covered. Not just most, but all!”

They nodded there heads while Ishan rattled off a barrage of Turkish. Emre had to slow him down twice.

“We are not crazy desert people like the Arabs,” he said. “We are Turks. We love life. What have they ever done for the world? It was Turkish culture that made Islam great! Before we arrived they were riding camels and eating dates. We gave them wine, raki and music,” he continued. “And what did they give us? Nothing,” he exclaimed, mashing his fist into an outstretched palm. He spit in the wind at Erdogan’s name once more for good effect.

“Please, excuse him,” Emre said. “We’ve had too many beers.” But his smiling eyes betrayed the lie.

Behind us a young couple was macking down, tongues intertwined in an urgent dance. The girl was wearing hejab, but she was also dolled-up in a way that certainly violates the spirit of hejab, if not the letter.

“You see that,” Ishan said, pointing an accusatory finger at the couple. “This is what Erdogan has done. Yes, we accept that our economy has done well under him–at least until this year. But what about life? We are Turks,” he went on, “we want what Ataturk gave us–to be free and modern. Why do we look backwards, like Erdogan, that mule! I want to see beautiful women! I want to see legs, and arms and hair! I don’t want to see yumurta-heads.”

I laughed at that. Yumurta is Turkish for egg, and the women who are covered in the politically correct hejab fashion of the day do look like they have eggheads.

The couple behind us was getting hot and heavy now. Hell, we could feel the heat thirty meters away even though there was a nice breeze. They were semi-blocked by the retaining wall and yet, everyone knew what was happening.

“Ustu Fatih, alti Şişhane,” I said, trying out a bit of Turkish slang a friend had taught me.

Ishan and Emre roared with laughter. The couple stopped their caresses long enough to look up and then dove back in, ignoring the three men on the rocks.

“You know what this means,” asked Emre?

“Yes, it means the top half of the girl is from Fatih, a very conservative neighborhood, but the bottom half is from Şişhane, which is not!”

We all laughed again, but Ishan blurted out, “fanatik,” at the couple. “Take off your headscarf,” he yelled at the girl. “Be a woman, not a Muslim! Be young! Live your life. To hell with what your father says!”

Emre’s laughter collapsed into an embarrassed silence. Ishan dropped his beer bottle down in the rocks, cursing his bad luck.

Ships passed through the Bosporus and the sun fell behind a bank of clouds.

Ishan popped open a new bottle and spoke.

“You see, all Turks want the same thing, but these religious fanatiks make like difficult for humans to be natural. What is more natural than sitting on the sea shore, holding hands and kissing,” he asked?

“Nothing at all,” I told him.

“And what about your daughters,” I asked Ishan. It is to a man’s daughters, the world over, where his true attitudes about woman are.

“My daughters are wonderful. They both go to university. They are beautiful. They have kind boyfriends and they do not wear those damned headscarves. My family is modern!” He slammed his fist down into his palm once again.

“We are grateful that Ataturk gave us this life. Why should we not live it?”

Bursa Blues

Bursa Kitty“So, where you from?” the bartender asked me.

“Texas, Austin, actually,” I replied.

“Welcome to Bursa,” he said, “call me Nick, it’s easier to pronounce than my Turkish name.”

“Pleasure meeting you, Nick,” I said.

“What’s your drink?” he asked.

“Scotch on the rocks,” I said.

He set down the warm, cloudy potency swirling in a glass; syrupy and smokey like water from a peat bog.

“What are you doing in Bursa,” he asked, “business or tourist?”

“A tourist,” I said, “although I like to think I am a writer.”

“From Austin, then, yes? So, do you like the blues,” he asked.

I sipped my drink, looked into a bar filled with smoke and Turkish men and smiled.

“Of course,” I said.

“Chicago Blues or Texas Blues?” he asked.

“I like them both, but Texas blues are in my blood. I grew up watching Stevie Ray Vaughn, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Chris Duarte, Eric Johnson and Ian Moore,” I said.

“What about Johnny Winters? ZZ Top? Bonnie Raitt?”

“Damn,” I exclaimed, “you do know your blues, don’t you?”

“I lived in Houston for a few years in my early twenties and fell in love with ‘em,” he replied.

“Curious, why the blues?” I asked, “What about Turkish music?”

“I love Turkish music,” he said enthusiastically. “I’m a Turk!”

“Another drink,” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said, “been in Eastern Anatolia too long.” The scotch seared my throat and cleared my sinuses. I lit up a smoke.

“So, what is it you like about the blues?” I asked.

“It’s kind of like Turkish music, it shares a similar feeling, emotion, as you would say in English. The blacks in your country had good reason to create this music and its feeling still lives in its sounds. It’s a feeling we have in Turkish music too, we call it, ‘hüzün,” he said. “Do you know this word?”

“Melancholy,” I said. “A kind of worldly sadness.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Of course, Turkish music is very different from the blues but the essence is the same.”

I thought back to the long bus-rides across the epic landscapes of Anatolia. To buses filled with old matrons in headscarves, wiry gaunt-faced farmers, lemon cologne-scented air and the winsome sounds of Turkish ballads.

“Indeed, Nick, Turkish music is ‘hüzün’,“I said.

Any favorite songs, you want to hear?” He asked. “I have quite a catalog here at the bar.”

“Little Wing, by Stevie Ray Vaughn? Or maybe, better yet, Voodoo Child (Slight Return)?”

“Absolutement,” he said, smiled and walked over to the computer plugged into a monstrous sound system. The sugary opening licks of Voodoo Child dripped off the walls of the bar. I took another drink, feeling the fog clouding my better judgment, and sang along with the Nick.

I didn’t mean to take up all your sweet time,” we yelled, “I’ll give it right back to you one of these days.” The other bar patrons gave us no notice, too busy watching Beşiktaş clobber Ankara in a futbol match, our singing drowned out by howls of “gooooooooaall!”

If I don’t see you no more in this world I’ll meet you up on the next,” we continued, “don’t be late! Don’t be late.”

We both laughed.

“Another drink,” Nick asked?

“Sure,” I said.

I sat for a while thinking about the last three weeks in Anatolia. An element of hüzün colored my reminisces. It had been an amazing journey. Just as moving and healing as Lake Toba, months before, but entirely different in temperament. Emotionally I felt more centered than at any time in the last three or four years. Actually, more so since 2002. A new sense of purpose is growing within me, too. I’m not the man I was three, four or five years ago. And I realized this sometime between Şanlıurfa and Sivas. This man is free of the past. And looks forward to the future, a future of his own making, free of old fetters and chains.

Equally important is the knowledge that sometime between Delhi and Diyarbakir the grieving process of my divorce ended. I don’t know when this occurred, but the anger and the sadness just drifted away. Maybe it was the muck of Delhi did it. Maybe it was the peace of Toba. Or maybe it was just time. I didn’t realize it had even happened, so subtle was the change, until a few days ago.

“Any other requests,” asked Nick, pulling me out of my reverie.

“How about you play something you like,” I told him.

“Tamam–(Turkish for okay),” he said. “I think you’ll like this one. It’s one of the best American songs about hüzün I can think of.”

Out of the speakers I could hear Bonnie Raitt’s voice say, “I’d like to bring out a friend of mine who wrote this next song, John Prine.”

A bigger smile has never crossed my face. The first time I heard Angel from Montgomery–the live duet with John Prine and Bonnie Raitt–was back in the summer of 1989 and its impact on me was immediate. I knew the old woman in the song, all dreams of thunder and a lightning of desire in her youth. But in the song she’s an middle-aged woman, looking back on her life with a rueful wisdom, wishing she were an angel who could fly away, but no matter how hard she tried “the years just rolled by like a broken down damn.”

Nick and I sang the chorus:

Make me an angel that flies from Montgomery. Make me a poster of an old rodeo. Just give me one thing that I can hold on to, because believing in this living is such a hard way to go.

Nick smiled, but there was a sadness in his clear, green eyes. “We all want to escape, don’t we?”

“Yes,” I said, nodding my head slowly.

“Maybe someday I will again,” he said.

“I hope you do, Nick, I hope you do.”

I tried to pay the tab but Nick refused.

“One more drink for my honored guest,” he demanded?


He poured two shots, lifted his glass and said, “to “hüzün!”

There was a tipping back and a setting down. We both gasped and grimaced and then said our goodbyes.

Outside Ulu Dag shouldered its way into view, lit by spectacular tendrils of lightning and then shuddered under dreams of thunder.

Drunk, I stumbled uphill into the rain.

A Big Lonely City, Families And The Politics Of The Veil

Blossoms, SultanhametYesterday began with the promise of being a truly awful day. After breakfast I stopped by my favorite free wireless cafe, ordered some Turkish Tea and proceeded to check my email. A guilt inducing letter from home arrived, like an unwanted party guest. At first I was angry–a luxury I can scarcely afford–but then that sinking feeling set in. I chewed over the letter for a while, asked myself what it was that made me angry and if the sender might perhaps be right? Of course before the calm of understanding settled upon me I had already composed several angry, accusatory replies, only to delete them all. In the end I settled on simplicity itself: honesty, honesty about myself and others. I was kind, but blunt, blunt without a hint of reciprocating guilt. I stated my case and ended the letter with words of hope, that the tone of the correspondence might resume in a spirit of understanding and love.

I pushed thoughts of home, false obligations, old guilts and habits away and walked out. A dull graying followed me all day. The Bosporus shone but I did not see. The Uskumru sandwich was tasteless. The mosaic museum held no joy–although it was a sight to see. The streets were crowded, the crowds brushing and bumping past in pressing anonymity raised the loneliness in me like yeast. Even the cat outside the museum seemed uninterested. Eating my midday meal Vedat, Fuat and Isak all tried to get me out of my shell. But the Turkish jokes fell short of their mark and they soon stopped. Besides, men instinctively know when to leave another man to stew.

I ate my meal in silence, the Safronlu Tavuk dull but filling, uploaded the museum photos, put the laptop away, paid the bill and left. It was 6:00 in the evening. On my way up the old hill of Sultanhamet I noticed for the first time that day just how wild the light was, settling on people and buildings like an blanket of amber honey, pulling the color from houses, faces and even the gray minarets high above the Blue Mosque. The acute pink blossoms fronting the Hagia Sophia sung out in the early evening.

A small park sits between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. In it are a dozen rows of wooden benches, populated with Turkish men sipping tea, young lovers exchanging kisses, old couples holding hands and an endless streaming of tourists moving back and forth between the two glaring sovereigns on the hill. I picked a bench and sat down and forced myself to see the beauty thrown out before me. I must have stared at the Blue Mosque for fifteen minutes, then turned around to stare at the Hagia Sophia.

Three young Turkish women approached me, all three veiled. “Hello,” the tall brown-eyed one said. “We’re students working on a project, can we ask you a few questions?” Sometime between Fuat’s and sitting down in the park my mood had lifted and I said, “sure.”

Hatice was tall, big brown eyes full of life and questions, wearing a long manteau draped over her frame and tight floral print silk scarf covering her head. Fatma was slight with elegant fingers and a hint of the steppes galloping about her eyes. Mervé had Galatian dancing across her pale blue eyes, pale skin and wide round face. They spoke in fluent, if tentative English. Hatice, an economics major, did most of the talking while Fatima (engineering) and Marvé (architecture) spoke in staccato bursts of Turkish to each other to better understand the nuances of what I was saying.

They were boilerplate questions, but I was happy to answer them all, hungry now for human contact. I do so love Istanbul, and they were surprised to hear me say so. Some how the conversation, like all conversations, turned to politics and religion. We cut straight to the heart of things. I believe it was Hatice who asked me what I thought of the ‘veil.’

“It’s your choice,” I replied. “If you want to wear it, no problem. If you do not, no problem,” I said, repeating a line I’ve used from India to Oman.

“But sometimes I have trouble,” she said. Mervé agreed. “Sometimes, at university, I don’t wear it,” implying that people made fun of her, or troubled her in some unspoken, or untranslatable way. This aroused in me a strange strong anger. “But it is your choice, no?” I asked, a touch of vehemence in my voice.

“Yes, it is but . . . ” she said. And the ‘but’ lingered in the air like a foul, human smell.

I realized sitting there that it’s not the veil which arouses such strong feelings in me, it’s the compulsion behind it. I told all three of them, “you know, my mother was a feminist.” All six eyebrows arched upwards in unison at this modern heresy but I continued. “She taught me that men and women are equal. Different in some ways but equal. This is why I do not like governments like Iran and many people from Arabia. They force women into slavery,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to mince words and continued. “Women in Saudi Arabia cannot work, they cannot drive a car, they cannot vote and they cannot leave the home without a husband or a brother. This is wrong,” I said.

They all nodded their heads in unison and I plowed on, warming to the subject, but trying not to hector them.

“But here, in Turkey you are free. If you want to wear the hejab you can. If you do not then you don’t. But it is your choice. A woman’s choice. If a woman doesn’t want a career that is fine with me. There is no more difficult job in the whole entire world,” I formed a globe by waving my arms in the air, “than being a housewife.”

They all nodded in agreement.

“A mother is the first to wake up in the morning, get children up for school, wakes up lazy husband,” I added for humor. They smiled. “Then she cooks breakfast and lunch for husband and children, sends the children out and the husband to work. Then she cleans all day, buys food, arranges the home and then cooks for the children and waits for the husband. Sometimes she must heal her children–so she’s a doctor to–and she has to watch over their emotions, guarding them from the dangers of the world, helping them through their troubles–so now she is psychologist too–and only then is she the last to sleep,” I said, exhausted at the thought of all that endurance and work. “But this life should not be forced on any person. If you want a career,” I looked at Fatma who was smiling at Hatice, “then you should make one. And if you choose to wear the veil, why, who am I to tell you how you should honor Allah?”

“I wish the other girls and boys at the university thought as you do,” said Fatma. I sighed in understanding. Life is not easy for late teenagers anywhere (two were 19 and the other was just 20), the late spring of youth when a young woman is only beginning to understand what she can do, who she can be and what worlds she can create.

“So, what will you do with your architecture degree,” I asked Mervé? “When I complete my diploma I will work for big company of course, but I would like to return to Afyon and own my own business.”

“And you Hatice,” I asked?

“I think I would like to work for a bank. And visit America, of course,” she said with a wide grin, her almond eyes shining in the early evening sunset.

And you, Fatma, daughter of the Prophet,” I asked.

“I’ll be an engineer, but I don’t yet know what I will do. I am still young,” blushing at the compliment. For a moment a I sensed a wildness in her, a contained energy willing itself out. This one, I thought, will be someone, someday.

I smiled a contented smile. Not because I changed their minds. Or that they might or might not agree with me. Only that I was alive in the moment, hopefully being as good as an ambassador for my people as I could possibly be. These are the moments I cherish most, I thought, especially when the problems of home flee my head like bats tearing out of a cave at dusk.

Modernity is here in Turkey but it’s a decidedly Turkish one. That is as it should be. I should hope Turkey remains a secular state. And I do think it will. And yet, I am aware that Turkey arises from a Muslim tradition. And that, too, is as it should be. Europe and America both aspire to the morality of their Christian roots, although both fall far short. So what is wrong with Turkey aspiring to the morality of Islam? The very foundations of the religion are outward manifestations of social justice, as even the most cursory glances at the life of the Prophet will reveal. The zakat is a tithe, for those who are less fortunate than you. Ramadan is a reminder, at its heart, that there are hungry and needy people in the world and it is good to be reminded of their pangs. And the Haj? What could be more right for any man or woman than to be a pilgrim in the physical, mobile sense, or an inward, spiritual one?

I certainly don’t have any illusions that life is easy for Turkish women. And I don’t have any illusions that there hasn’t been over-religious regression in the last few years amidst an astonishing amount of material progress. When I first visited Turkey a dollar bought about 5,000,000 lira and you could be sure to add a new zero every few months. The cars were old and beat up. The buildings charming in their dilapidated condition but there was nary a skyscraper reaching towards the heavens. And now? All that has changed. It’s cleaner, better organized and the outward signs of wealth are everywhere. If you think about it it’s not terribly different from the over-religious regression but (phantom) improvement in material wealth in America over the last two decades?

Besides, I was lonely yesterday. A powerful, heavy loneliness. And the hopeful smiles and warm conversation I had in the dueling shadows of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia renewed and reinvigorated me.

It may not be perfect. But it’s real.

Eating In Silence

Last night was cold and damp. Late in the day rain returned on the coattails of cold Ukrainian wind. Blossoms, cigarette butts and the assorted flotsam of the city washed down the streets. My socks were soaked and my feet were wet (today I will get new shoes). I raced home in the darkness, my newly cropped hair draped over the globular dome of my fat head like a mop, rivulets of rain raced down my poncho.

I sat a sesame loaf on the kitchen table, said ‘hi’ to one of the Mongol’s chopping carrots and celery on the kitchen counter and hung my fresh pressed shirts in my closet. (Note to self: linen shirts are no good for an Istanbul spring.) I grabbed ‘East of Eden,’ a pack of smokes and walked into the common room, sat down at the kitchen table and started reading.

From the corner of my eye I observed the young Mongolian woman cooking here meal. She was a stout young woman, well built for the cold extremes of the Mongolian Steppes, but lacked a wildness in the eyes her husband/boyfriend has. I wondered where he was (they share the room next to mine) but soon ‘East of Eden’ sucked me back into its big story. Cathy’s twins had been delivered without incident. Now she was leaving, as she told Adam she would, but Adam wouldn’t let her go so she shot him in the shoulder with his own .44. The sheriff’s deputy couldn’t make sense of Adam’s lies and secret shame.

More after the jump.

I set the tome down on the table with a satisfied thud and dug a smoke out of its packaging. Before I could light it up the Mongolian woman set a plate of food in front of me. “Ah,” I thought to myself, “here is one of those pan-East Asian traditions both unavoidable and uncomfortable.”

I was hungry and smiled like the starving, coyote-like single man that I am, more forager than hunter, and did my best to convey my thanks in sign language. The two of us probably share six words in common. She has no English except for ‘hello and bye.’ I don’t know a lick of Mongol and couldn’t spit out a word if I tried. Our common Turkish is as small, ‘thank you and you’re welcome’ being the grand extent of it.

Here was one of those amazing situations that defy description. I was hungry, but I ate in a slow, deliberate fashion. Mostly we stared at our food as we ate in a pervasive silence. A thousand questions swan around in my gray matter.

“What’s her name? What’s she doing here? Can women really sense hunger in a man?” No, not that hunger. I’m talking about food here. “How old is she? Is she married to the guy she’s with? What is Mongolia like? Why Turkey?” But my mind kept circling back to why she felt compelled to feed me? Is this impulse nature of nurture? It’s always surprised me, even when I was married. I prefer to feed myself. But then again, I am a man, quite uncivilized and uncouth as these things go.

I also wondered what she thought. What was she thinking about me? Did she want to ask the same kind of questions? Was she as frustrated as I was with our inability to communicate? Or was she happy, or at the very least not bothered by the void that separated us?

The food was good. Odd, but good. I got up, washed as many dishes as I could to show my gratitude for the meal and stepped outside into a light drizzle.

It was an odd situation, but I was grateful for it no less.

Silly Penang Photos

Medicine and Liquor? I took some silly photos around Penang today. I got a new lens for my camera, a 55-200mm, that I absolutely stole the price was so good. I’m still toying around with it but I am looking forward to finally being able to take some sweet bird photos.

Here’s what I took today:

“Howdy,” Malaysian style!

A guy walking.

A close up of an ashtray.

A kid waiting for water.

An old man, very tired and worn out.

And a sign advertising ‘Chicks and Furniture.’ They obviously need to make some additions to the chronology here, adding: ‘Divorce and Furniture Removal Not Included.’