Walking Versus Driving

What I miss most about being home is simple. I miss being able to walk out my door, be it in Istanbul, Singapore or India and walk down the street to get what I want, see my neighbors, smile at strangers and stretch my legs. (And I could care less if it is 105* out right now. It was hotter in India and Oman, by an order of magnitude and that never stopped me from walking.)

Here I have to get in a car to drive three miles to the nearest convenience store. What the hell is so convenient about that? No one smiles, no one says, “hello” and no one shares any local gossip. Everyone is a stranger. I felt less lonely and isolated in foreign countries than I do here. That just ain’t right.

Budapest Journal, June 5, 2009: Mitteleuropa

Budapest ViewsFrom the travel journal:

Some Euros seem to have this conceit stuck in their head that Hungary is the gateway to the East, although admittedly not as bad as the ‘Wogs begin at Calais’ sort. I imagine if I was heading south from Denmark, through Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia into Hungary I might agree. But I’m not. I’m heading north, towards the North European plain and this city is nothing like an Asian or Eastern city. Budapest has much more in common with Trieste, Vienna and Prague than it does with Bucharest, Sophia, Moscow or Athens for that matter. This Mitteleuropa is terra incognita for me.

Met Joao, a young man from Portugal studying in Bucharest with the Erasmus program, on the Bucharest-Budapest train. He talked about the girls in Romania, the nightlife and economics. Needless to say, we had lots in common, economics, that is. He was a nice kid, handsome in the bug-eyed, Latin kind of way.

Budapest photos can be found here.

Don’t have much to write the last few days. Haven’t been in the best of moods. I miss the East. I miss Istanbul most of all. My muse.

Budapest is an architect’s city. Walk one block and you are assaulted by five different schools of art: the Parisian belle epoque, High Austrian fin de siecle, Art Deco, some Gothic, a little neo-Renaissance, Baroque and Hungary’s very own Sezessionistil–facades full of allegorical friezes, arcades of caryatids and Zsolnay tiles, which is a kind of Magyar faience. It is quite lovely.

Claudio Magris, in his book Danube, writes of “the kitsch of Budapest.” (An odd, dense travel book, in that it is really more a long mediation and survey of Central European lit-crit than anything else.) From where I sit he is correct, in an architectural sense. One building has the sleek lines of the Floretine Renaissance another is a glassy, modern shopping arcade. Across the street is a rounded Art Deco building graced with a series of twelve caryatids, half are Atlases, holding so many globes above their heads. There is a belle epoque apartment house not 50 meters away that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris or Vienna. A statue sits in the middle of the square dedicated to I know not whom: I can’t tease out any meaning from the inscription. Magris says Budapest is the “imitation of an imitation” meaning it imitates Vienna, which imitates Paris. He’s right. It may be a place of architectural kitsch, but it works. Normally, as I wrote about a mosque in Turkey, a blend of styles doesn’t work, but somehow Budapest charms. I wish I had more time here.

Castle Hill is a Prague-esque tumbledown of architectural styles too. It’s gorgeous, rising up over the bend of the Danube, on the Buda side of Buda-Pest. (My hotel is on the Pest side, as is my train station.) The views north and south down the river are impressive. More so than in Prague, but I imagine that is a function of the size of the Danube here. It’s wider than the Vltava River in Prague. But what Budapest lacks that Prague has is a compact city-center full of cafes, life, culture. Budapest has all that. It is an artists city, as well as an opera and theatre fan’s town. But it’s spread out, if not quite sprawling.

The Hungarians are much more European than the Romanians. There is also a lot more obesity here, in men and women, than I’ve seen since Thailand. Must be that sausage and beer diet. It’s the only thing on the menus. I miss the salads of the Levant. Atilla the Hun is huge here. The Hungarians claim descent from the Huns. Of course, there is a 400 year gap in the historical record, from the time the Huns arrived in the area to that of the Magyars arrival on the Great Plain. No matter. We all create our own histories in this post-modern age, don’t we?

“Are you hungry,” asked the waitress.

“Yes, I am hungry in Hungary, no less,” I replied.

She rolled her eyes. As if she hasn’t heard that one a thousand times? I couldn’t resist. Puerile, I know. But still, how many times does one get to say something so patently stupid, but enjoyable?I’d heard about the beauty of Hungarian women. But I’m not constantly rubber-necking like I was in Bucharest. Probably a good thing. I pay more attention to the art and architecture that way. Budapest isn’t nearly as ‘poor’ as Bucharest, but it wears its poverty differently. The gap between those who have and those who do not is wide. If you are well dressed then you are reasonably fit. If you aren’t then you are heavy, pot-bellied. And probably drinking a beer. There are a lot more street people here than I’ve seen since India. Turkey just didn’t have them. Of course, there were gypsies in Bucharest, but not so many.

The energy here is very European, industrious, even if the Magyars are Catholic by tradition. The sexes mix. Nice change from the East, if you ask me. The cafes aren’t full of underemployed men sipping tea. Laughter, feminine and masculine fill them. Ladies join their boyfriends for a beer. As it should be.

It’s the first place I arrived with a huge backpack strapped on where I wasn’t immediately stared at. No one paid me any notice. I found this anonymity disconcerting. I could hide here and never be noticed. Is that element of serendipity gone? I hope not.


University Church: BucharestI was on a mission yesterday when I walked down to the Radisson SAS Hotel for breakfast. (A meal there is probably as much as my hotel was, near the train station. Bucharest photos can be found here, by the way.)

“What would you like for breakfast, sir?” The waiter asked me.

“Two scrambled eggs, toast and eight strips of bacon,” I said.

“Excuse me? Eight slices?” He asked.

“Yes, eight,” I said. “If you have a whole pig back there I’ll take it, actually!” I smiled.

He frowned, a puzzled look coming over his dark Gypsy eyes.

“Listen,” I said. “I’ve been traveling in Muslim countries for almost six months and I want pork!”

“Okay,” he said, taking a step back from the strange American.

“You have bacon, yes?”

“Of course,” he said.

“Well, hop to it!” I grinned. “I’ve got a fierce hankering for lots of crispy bacon. A rasher, if you will. A slab of ham. Porks chops. Hell, bring me a plate of swine flu if you have to.”

“It’s too early for pork chops, sir, the kitchen cooks only breakfast until eleven am. But I can ask,” he said.

“It’s a joke,” I said, smiling at him. “But please, bring me lots of bacon.”

“Certainly sir,” he said, rushing off to the kitchen.

Ten long minutes later he arrived, set a plate towering with glistening, pig fat laden crispy bacon. There must have been twenty slices.

He smiled and said, “bacon’s on the house sir. Enjoy.”

I ate every last piece. Each crunchy morsel followed by a delectable sip of Illy coffee. As I finished the last strip I thought of my old friend Carolina–a Mexican woman originally from Oaxaca–back in San Antonio. We used to have breakfast once a month to catch up on family and friends at a local greasy spoon.

“Juan Pablo,” she would say every time we met, “I only order tocino (bacon) here. Tocino es mi perdido.”

Perdition indeed.

İstanbul bana aşık, ben İstanbula aşığım!

İstanbul bana aşık, ben İstanbula aşığım!I knew tearing myself away from this city was going to be difficult, but I had no idea I would spend my last full afternoon in a terrible state of what the Turks might call, “hüzün.” If I did not have to be in Denmark in mid-June I would not leave. Soon I’ll head down to the train station and have a last uskumru sandwich and watch ferries dance across the Bosporus.

I arrived on April 1, 2009 and in the blink of an eye this magical city has wooed me, wowed me, saddened me beyond measure and lifted me to the highest of heights. I will look back on this time just as I do Lake Toba, but for altogether different reasons. Toba was about disconnecting from the world in a way I’d not done in years. It was an escape, an idyll, an exotic dreamscape of guitars, new friends, peace and the warm waters of the lake I bathed in each morning. Toba was a place for me to bury the past, the obligations of home and family and in their place plant seeds that would, I hoped, spring up into a new life.

Istanbul has been about that second spring. It is an altogether appropriate metaphor, right and good. When I arrived it was cold, overcast and only the first, most tenuous buds of green sprouted from the trees. The flowers only just pushing up from their winter sleep. I was wiped out from the chaos of India but it was much more than India on my mind. What Istanbul took away in 2007, it gave it all back and more in 2009.

Three things happened in Istanbul that leave me grateful beyond measure. The grieving process of my failed marriage ended. And in that I realized the second thing: as much as I am a solitary creature I learned that although I thought I wanted to spend the rest of my life alone it was only an impulse, a defense. I crawled into a cave, like a bear after a grievous fight, there to heal my wounds. The wounds healed and the bear walked out of the cave to catch salmon in a spring brook, to revel in the world, the glory of the light, the green trees and the cold rushing mountain waters. In a sense I would say that my faith was restored, for faith is not to be underestimated.

Finally, as this most perfect of Istanbul days draws to a close and my thoughts race forward to the train station, crowds, a new language, new places and sights, I am grateful for the simple joy of falling in love with such an amazing city. I believe it was Jan Morris who said, “I have loved places like people, and they have become me.”

The good, the bad and the indifferent. All of it. I’ll trade it, any day, for diamonds, gold, lovers, money, career, fame, position or power. Will I return? I certainly hope so. Will I ever live here? I plan on it. But for now I have a journey to complete. There are a few loose ends that need a twisting up and a sewing shut.

It is a fitting consolation, no matter what transpires, that I can say, where ever I go, “Ben İstanbulluyum!”

“I am an İstanbullu.”

My talisman, my secret chant, my incantation.

“Ben İstanbulluyum!”

Ephesus and Priene

Smug BastardAs promised, here are the photos from Ephesus and Priene. A big shout-out to MJSteckel, for the suggestion to visit Priene.

Ephesus was a great site. And very big. But Priene, well, the view was fantastic. And the site, because it’s less curated, let my imagination run wild. It was wonderful.


Istanbul Journal, May 21st 2009: “A City of Near Misses”

Fishing At Dusk: IstanbulMy friend Kipouros lives here in Istanbul and wrote one of the best descriptions of why this place is so wonderful, why it has such an amazing and captivating spirit:

But why does it draw people in so? It’s not necessarily physical beauty, though Istanbul has plenty despite the flood of cement that has obliterated much of its old character. When I look off the Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge up the undulating turquoise Bosphorus, lined with brilliant white mansions below forested hills splashed with the pink of Judas trees, I often think, “when this view ceases to move me, it will be time to leave.”

These are things that draw people to the city, but what keeps them here is the inescapable warmth of the people (even if there are some we feel like strangling) and an ever-transforming, inexhaustible energy. It’s not always pleasant; a friend described Istanbul as a “city of near misses,” and it’s a good description. Everyday life can be a bit like watching the local neighborhood showoff throwing rocks at a hornet’s nest. Things could play out in lots of different ways, but you know something’s going to happen, and it will probably be interesting.

I’d encourage you to read the entire post, as he echoes many of my thoughts and feelings about this place.

Home, I realized somewhere between Singapore and Sivas, is where I choose to make it. Of course, the trite phrase, “where ever you go, there you are,” is all to true, but there is something about this city.

Right now the ferries are skating across a sheet of blue marble. Sunlight dances about the whitecaps ploughed up in the wake of a bulk freighter lumbering downstream to the Dardanelles. The trees wear the ‘dress-greens’ of Spring, leaves rippling in the breeze. Dry cleaners press shirts in silence. Laughter spills out of barber shops. Tea houses rumble with the din of a hundred conversations, jokes and laments. Istanbul has thrown off the cloak of its ‘huzun.’ The whole place has fountained into a rollicking cascade of life and light. Lovers cuddle on benches. An old man walks deliberately down the seashore, hands clasped behind his back holding prayer-beads. The Turkish flag snaps and claps in the breeze. And the sun taps on my temples, neck and forearms, not harsh, nor fierce, just warm. The horizon out across the Marmara is a thin ribbon of opposing blues. It is, in short, one of those days of incomparable Spring joy.

When I look out on this view I don’t ever want to leave. My heart starts scheming the moment I cast my gaze elsewhere, like a jealous lover. “Get a job here,” it screams. “You can teach. You could write here. If ever there was a muse, aren’t I she? You could work for a bank, asset management, anything! Something! How can you possibly consider leaving this place?”

I do, so love this city. Every crooked cobble, every misstep, every ‘near miss.’ Every gray-bearded imam and slick-suited young yuppie. Every gang of smiling, unemployed young men. Every scarved-matron waddling to the bread store to feed her pious, conservative husband. Every rude American tourist, and each genteel waiter who serves her. Every crooked taxi driver and the other twenty honest ones. All the shoe-shine boys. And all the gypsies. The insane drivers. The incomplete and incoherent infrastructure. The rain. The sun. The snow. The clouds. An uskumru sandwich on the Eminonu Docks. The burning singe of Raki and a mellow sip of tea from a delicate tulip-shaped glass. The martyred-Greeks, the persecuted Armenians and the invisible Kurds. The clean streets and the dirty alleyways. The green gardens and the concrete playgrounds. The crush and throng of the Grand Bazaar and the Holy silences of the Imperial Mosques. The austere antiquity of the Hagia Sophia and the outrageous Baroque decadence of Ortakoy and Dolmabahce. The permanent solidity of the Theodosian Walls and the slippery transience of the Bosporus current. And forever and ever the inexhaustible ‘azan’ blasting out from a thousand minarets five times each day.

I can work myself up into mountains of sacred rapture only to fall the very next day into profane depths of depression.

And though I might complain a little, it never lasts long.

True love is like that.

Malatya Reprise

Attached are snippets of my time from an email I sent to a friend:

The day before yesterday, as you know, I was in Malatya. I hired a cab after breakfast. He was a well dressed, handsome Turkish man in his late 20s, early thirties. He had the most amazing blue eyes. I often wonder if they shock me as they do because they are so unexpected and at the same time, blue and green eyes, shockingly so, seem to be very common. He spoke little English, but we got on well. Some taxi drivers talk to excess, even when you don’t share a common language. Mehmet didn’t. He asked simple questions in a combination of English and Turkish and I replied likewise. We drove out to Battalgazi–the site of old Mitelene under fierce spring light. It was the first time I used sunglasses since Oman.

The drive was downhill, probably about 600 feet as altitude goes. There were many small canals, gravity pulling the water home, plane trees with gravy white bark and luxurious seven pointed leaves provided shade.

Our first stop was the old Seljuk, Ulu Cami. We walked around, found the groundskeeper’s son, named Sabri, who lives in a rabbit burrow like home on the side below the mosque. He grabbed the keys, unlocked the door, literally rolled out a welcome mat and said, “Hos Geldiniz,” which is Turkish for ‘Welcome!”

The mosque had eight parallel aisles, most of the piers–supporting pillars–are a newish basalt–the mosque has been restored considerably, but done very well. There are no naves in mosques, as there are no priestly processions to need one. So, you get eight parallel rows for prayer in the old style-Damascene mosques. You’ve already seen the photos, but here’s the link to where those of the Ulu Cami start, just in case. This is the first Seljuk mosque I’ve seen in Anatolia that shows movement away from the old Damascene, rectangular floor plan. It’s still a rectangle, but this was the first I’d seen that had a pishtaq, or iwan–an entry portal. But what was so odd about this one is that it wasn’t in the front of the mosque, as they usually are. The iwan was in a central courtyard, which is even stranger. Iwans are very common in Persian Seljuk and Ilkhanid (Muslim Mongols in the late 13th early 14th century Iran) mosques. But Iwans are triumphal entry portals and facades, not mean to be hidden in a recessed courtyard. An oddity I must research more.

I wondered, while admiring its rich faince tiles–I so love that color and the tiles and I haven’t seen nearly enough!–if this was one of the first attempts to utilize this most magnificent of expressions in mosque architecture. There was a woman’s prayer hall at the back of the mosque, very much in the mold of a Jewish Synagogue. This was the first ‘bayan mesjiti’–woman’s prayer hall–I’d seen in a Seljuk mosque as well. A handful of old muqarna cornices survived in the ‘bayan mesjiti,’ but they were in poor condition. The dome was nicely done, supported by four squinches and eight small windows in the zone of transtition let in the light. The dome had a wonderful checkboard pattern of brick and turquoise tiles, a pattern which wrapped around in a gorgeous swirl of color, finally morphing into a Star of David, one interlocking triangle blue and the other black, with thuluth inscriptions weaving the triangles togehter.

Right now I am in a cafe, sipping tea and listening to live musicians play Turkish music. It’s really magnetic, soulful and melancholy music. A splendid end to an almost perfect day–of which I will write more tomorrow or this weekend.

I broke off the narrative and discussed some personal matters and picked it back up here:

I dropped a few lira into the donation box at the mosque and walked outside. Mehmet asked a young boy where a certian turbe was. The boy hollered something back at him in Turkish and sped off on his bike, yelling, I assume, “come on! Follow me!”

We saw two minarets, not terribly inspiring, but still nice, three mausolea and an old ‘konak’ in a terrible state of disrepair, supposedly being renvoated for tourists. As I was the only one on this gorgeous day, I thought, “well, they’re renovating for no reason. No one else is here.” I didn’t even see any tourists in the city center later that afternoon while having tea in the meydan–the city square. Of course, I loved the fact that I WAS the only one there. It was all mine, disrepair or not!

We were done about 2pm and I then dealt with some administrative stuff, bank account, uploaded photos, stuff like that. I took a short nap–I had two relatively sleepless nights before that–and then walked into the city center. I sat on the roof of a tea house for a few hours, scribbling away, and had lunch. I had ‘tavuk sote’ and ‘coban salat:’ shepherd’s salad and a delicious chicken dish that came out in a shallow iron bowl–broiling over with a tomato sauce, onions, green chilis and arik–kind of like fajitas back home. Damn good stuff.

After that I walked around, took some photos, chatted with two old men who spoke English who ran a jewlery store and asked all kinds of questions about America.

The last bit of the email was kind of unconscious jotterings from my travel journal:

Old man casting a line out into a river. Strange seeing a Muslim man with a skullcap fishing. Why is that? Tractors stir up dust on roads adjacent newly planted fields. Beans, potatoes, wheat, barley (Turks do like their beer). An aquaduct looms ahead of us, growing larger and larger until we pass beneath it.

Grapevine trellises surround saltillo-tiled roof farm houses. Apricot orchards are everywhere. Green leaves with a taste of orange on the ends droop in the harsh alpine sunlight. The Mitelene Valley is one of the finest pastoral landscapes I’ve ever seen. So fecund, so much potential, so green and alive.

Flowers like purple bluenbonnets amidst a sea of green grass. It’s semi-arid now, between Malatya and Sivas. Wow, dry. Dusty. Caliche looking rocks, pristine snowcaps in the foreground.

Hills are mostly sedimentary now, the igneous is buried deep now, or has eroded. Which erodes faster, igneous, sedimentary or metamorphic rock? There is a lot of thurst and uplift evident, however, like these hills have been tossed about by some petulant child-god in a fit of pique. Conglomerate litters the river bottoms now. The water grows dirtier and dirtier. We just crossed the Kizilirmak–the Red River. Every country must have one of those, eh? The rocks look like they have a patina on them. I wonder if there is copper in the soil? Woudn’t they mine it if it were here? What other ores oxidize into a greenish hue? Need more verbs for mountains. Climbing, soaring, towering, etc. . . overused, but so goddamned true! Wow, those rocks look like giant orange dominoes.

The pass was 1,750 meters. What is that in feet? I don’t even remember. Grown so accumstomed to metric. What is a mile anymore? My life is measured in kilometers now. If it can be measured at all.

Blue Skies and Seljuk Tiles

Light and Location

Lovely Turkish GirlsI was in a general, all around bad mood–full of foul, angry bile just waiting for the right moment to be a bitch (and yes, men can be bitches too)–only momentarily broken by the spell the interior of the Hagia Sophia cast upon me, as I took the metro back to Taksim this afternoon. But the moment I crossed the Golden Horn I’d have possessed a heart of ice to not smile. And it was a big, shit-eating grin of pure joy that I smiled. My fellow passengers must have thought I was nuts. This looney foreigner smiling like an inmate from a lunatic asylum?

But it was impossible not to, for three hundred and sixty degrees of eye candy lay before me! The late afternoon light, just beginning its long slant towards sunset stretched out like luminescent fingers reaching for the pink and green hills of Asia.

Damn, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Sadly, this is one view that must be seen in person. The photos I’ve posted over three trips here so far just don’t do it justice. Not even remotely.

I sat back, sighed a deep, heavy sigh and thought of what I’ve seen in the last several months, lost in a moment of poignant reverie.

“Has anything been as beautiful as this?” I asked.

I ticked off the list: Singapore? Nope. The Cameron Highlands? Nope. Laos? Nope. Angkor? Nope. Vietnam? Nope. Lake Toba? Close, but not quite–and a very different aesthetic and cultural experience in the bargain.

There is something about the natural setting of Istanbul with Asia to the south, the deep, almost estuary-like Golden Horn cutting through the heart of the European city like a dagger and the old Acropolis where the Topkapi and Hagia Sophia still stand that is quite literally majestic. Oh, there are places of supreme natural beauty that get me twirling around in fits of ecstasy like one of the local Mevlana Dervishes. But I know of no place on earth where nature–here the sea and the hills–and city come together with such force and impact.

I mined deeper into my past and a thought danced around in my head, something I’d been toying with but hadn’t quite idealized.

“Light,” I thought, snapping my fingers loudly, scaring the lady sitting next to me.

That’s the ingredient that makes Istanbul so special to me. Rome’s got it too. Actually, almost every place in the world has its own special light. Some, like Muscat, are sharp, hard edged. Singapore’s is wet and heavy. The Western Deserts of China dazzle in dry brilliance and Central Mexico has a serenity that belies the chaos happening at all points along the compass. Sadly, too many are now too occluded by pollution to be appreciated any longer. I mean, really, how many of us sit around and ponder the color of the local light?

Now, Rome’s light, actually much of Italy south of the Arno, shares a similar feel to that of Istanbul, but not quite the same. I’m writing this off the cuff so I’ll spare you any elaborate or purple metaphors and similes, suffice it to say the light of Rome is warm, like a luscious white wine. And the way the rays fall through the Parasol pines on the Aventine or Quirinal makes one want to be holy. But this light in Istanbul? It’s like a cross between the ancient light of Athens in all its quasi-oriental hues and Rome’ stunning grandeur, except one never knows when some sultry houri or odalisque is going to jump out and lead me down temptation avenue. Or a Janissary captain is going to press me into the Sultan’s service. Or a half-mad, drunken Armenian is going to tell me judgment day is coming. I just never know!

It’s also that same light that finds its way down from the dome of the Hagia Sophia, a place that never fails to inspire.

Fuck it, man. I’d wade through a river of shit ten times to see this place.

Medan, Indonesia

The ferry ride was great. The water in the Straits, once we got out into open water, was gorgeous. I counted almsot a hundred container ships in one 30 minute stretch. No doubt it is one of the most strategic and busiest bodies of water in the world.

I’m in Medan now and headed to Lake Toba tomorrow so posting will continue to be light as I travel. I do have lots of pics and will upload them soon.

I like Indonesia already. And the coffee? I’m on the island of Sumatra right now and you can imagine how amazing it is. And strong too!

Plus, I am now at 44 countries. Woo-hoo!