Monday, May 30, 2011

Hitching Istanbul to Prague: Day 2

I got a bit of a late start since I was waiting around for the free breakfast at the Art Hostel, but made it out to a good hitching spot on the outskirts of the city by 11am.

I was standing by a gas station, just across an intersection with a stoplight, right in front of a long wide shoulder. This means that cars were filling up for significant distances, traffic was slow, and there was plenty of room to pull over. Still, it took me about an hour to get picked up.

A guy in a small sedan who worked for a trucking company and spoke no English dropped me off on the road just past Slivnitsa, right by a cop that was just standing in the middle of the road - a country road in America, a highway in Bulgaria - and stopping cars randomly by holding up his palm.

My ride said that the cop was no problem when I mimed a question about the legality of hitching in Bulgaria. I walked past the cop and asked if "avtostop" was okay. Definitely not.

I had to walk a half-mile down the road to get out of his sight to hitch. I stood across from a small gas station that got zero business as I stood there. I had my monocular handy to scope out cars as they came down the road from where the cop was. I was afraid of having my thumb out as the same cop drove by. One can only imagine how much fun he'd have busting a tourist for hitchhiking after he just told me I can't hitchhike.

I watched a three-car passenger train rumble past behind the gas station and kind of wished I was on it. It took me another hour to get a ride in a tiny yellow bucket of a Fiat. The top of the passenger seat was bent backwards, and in the backseat there was a small pile of clothes and fifths of booze of various levels of emptiness. The woman was friendly and sober though, and the first solo woman to pick me up.

She dropped me off a couple kilometers from the Serbian border. I hoofed it down the side of the road, the passenger train passing me once again as we'd overtaken it in the yellow Fiat.

I arrived at the border sweaty and walked up to the toll-style checkpoint. A Bulgarian guard wanted to know what was in my travel guitar case. All the border guards want to know whats inside my travel guitar case; it could definitely be a gun.

"Are you a songer?"
"No, I'm bad. I just play for fun."
"Can you play it?" Which wasn't as much of a question as one might think. I played a few bars. It was well out of tune.
"You're not a good songer."
"I know."

He let me go, and I walked over to the Serbian side, where I was spared the indignity of embarrassing myself with my guitar again. I walked about a hundred yards before I realized I saw no Serbian stamp in my passport. After the scare in Kazakhstan, I thought this might be a problem and walked back and asked a guard if the ghostly outline I had just seen was in fact the Serbian stamp. It was, and apparently the mostly non-existent stamp was good enough for government work.

I walked a bit, and waited a bit for the next couple kilometers. There was very little traffic, and no one was stopping. I was eating chewy gummy worms and sweating my balls off, and told myself that if I got to Dimitrovgrad without a ride, I'd just take a train. That's the perpetual fear when hitchhiking: after a certain amount of time, you convince yourself that a ride will never materialize, despite your odds of getting picked up after one car passing are exactly the same as after a hundred cars passing.

It's very easy to convince yourself of the hopelessness of the situation, and even easier to forget all despondency as soon as a car stops, and one almost always does.

The train passed me once again.

On narrow part of road just before Dimitrovgrad, a cargo van with an empty trailer clattered to a stop. It was about 3:00PM, and the driver, Drago, said he could take me all the way to Belgrade.

I had trouble staying awake, but caught some great songs on the radio during my lucid moments. The Dire Straits, a retro-80s hit, FatBoy Slim. Drago stopped for a bit to sleep as well.

At 8PM, Drago dropped me off on the side of the road near an ramp leading to the city center. I had brochures from the hostel last night that directed me to another amazing hostel after another hour, perhaps, of hauling my bags around town.

The place was like a cool attic hangout, and the only people there were two cute British girls, fresh out of high school, who cooked me food and fed me grapes as I lounged on the sprawling bean bag chairs like a Roman. It might've just been the London accents, but they further impressed me by being able to hold a more intelligent conversation than most women my own age.

An Australian guy showed up eventually. He had been on the train from Sofia that I had passed and been passed by several times throughout the day. It turns out hitchhiking isn't as inefficient as some may think.

With the sore shoulders, full belly, and few drinks in me, I had to hit the hay early since I knew I'd have a long day of hitching in the morning. A bunch of American cyclists showed up and I just didn't have the energy to meet any more new people.

Again, I wanted to stay and explore Belgrade, but as least passing through is better than flying over.

Hitching Istanbul to Prague: Day 1

I didn't think hitching would start off so miserably and end so wonderfully.

I took some online advice and was standing on the side of the road near a bus station on what some may consider the outskirts of Istanbul, but what is still well within its suffocating sprawl.

Two hours of holding a sign and trying to explain to occasional passersby that I wasn't interested in the bus station right behind me, I nearly was ready to give up. Then some cops stopped as they drove by, and reversed toward me.

The young sidekick studied English linguistics. "Why are you hitchhiking like this?" "You can take a bus." I lied and said that I had a bet with friends. I learned from Doc in Cannery Row that people sometimes don't trust someone doing something just to do it. Everyone likes a story with a bet.

The cops were great and brought me to a smaller, quieter road on the backside of the station that they said would be better. Inside their little van/car hybrid vehicle, there were billy clubs swinging on hooks on the side, and a semi-automatic shoved on a shelf above the sun visors.

I stood there for awhile before I saw a western-European looking kid with a backpack and knew he was here to hitch out too. There could be no other reason for a traveler to be where we were. He followed standard hitching etiquette and moved further down road from me, since I was there first and would get the first ride.

Neither of us got rides after more than an hour, bringing my total waiting time up to around three and a half. We decided to get a bus out of town together. At the bus station outside of Edirne, after briefly not knowing which way was towards Bulgaria, we got a ride as we were hoofing it along the highway on-ramp.

And to clarify, when I say highway for this part of the trip, I mean roads that look like the above photo. That's Ville, the Finnish guy I spent the first day hitching with. A total of four rides took us across the Bulgarian border to the capital, Sofia. Each time we got dropped off, we waited even less time than the previous ride.

First was a Bulgarian in a small Ford who drove coaches in Turkey because the money was better. He was big and had a short, well-trimmed mustache. We picked up his wife in a small town and he changed into a track suit, showed us his motorcycle, and gave us coffee.

Second was a pair of young Bulgarian guys in a spacious station wagon. They smoked cigarettes and we listened to Bulgarian pop music.

Third was with another pair of guys in a jalopy they had to push start after they filled up with gas. I involuntarily nodded off a couple times.

Our last ride was as the dusk was falling, and we weren't sure if we'd make it to Sofia that night. After standing for five minutes on a tiny road outside of Plovdiv that led to the highway to Sofia, a long BMW sedan screeched to a halt in the dirt beside us. A young couple brought us to the outskirts of the city where we had a meal in a gas station that tasted better than any other meal I've ever had in a gas station.

Thank god I was with Ville, who had a LP for eastern Europe. That's how we found the hostel we stayed in, after ditching some sketchy Ruskophone who kept saying he wasn't going to rob or stab us. And thank god Ville was with me when we were hitching because he'd never done it before, and I had a European road atlas and he didn't . Our resources complimented each others well.

The hostel was one of the best I've stayed in. It was cheap, the rooms where clean, spacious, and mostly empty. The graffiti, design, and organization lent it a real comfortable atmosphere, and the basement bar had cheap beer, beautiful women, and live music.

I was to find that being tempted to stay in each place I passed through was to become a theme on this four day hitching jaunt.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Paul Theroux Would Love This!

Apparently Indians have been exposed to dangerously sexy deodorant ads. According to a BBC article:
"The ads brim with messages aimed at tickling libidinous male instincts," India's information ministry said in a statement.
Can you believe that? Awesome! What a statement!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


I'm still alive! I'm on schedule, if you can call whatever I'm working with a schedule. Me and a Finnish guy made it from Turkey to Sofia yesterday, and I made it alone to Belgrade today. I should be in Prague on Friday night, just in time to guzzle beer and raise hell.

I'm too lazy to properly post anything beyond this. I could spend what little free time I have (that is, free time not sweating in the sun by the side of a road) eating, showering, or sleeping, so that's what I'll do while I'm hitching.

If you want to be sure I'm still alive, just check my twitter feed on the right-hand side. I'll update that instead of writing here.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Hustlers of Istanbul: Part 2

The biggest hustler in Istanbul: the government. I might as well put this out there now, while it's still possible in Turkey. Apparently the Man is about to throw some Chinese-style censorship on Internet access in a couple weeks. People have been protesting this in Taksim like it'll change something; walking up Istiklal Street today I saw "Internet should be free!" in sloppy graffiti scrawled on the side of the French Institute.

But let me regale you with tales of byzantine bureaucracy.

I wanted to get a SIM card for my archaic Lao-bought cell phone to help me organize an apartment to stay in while I was taking classes for five weeks. Plus you gotta have a phone if you want to manage all your dates with hot babes.

I found out about all sorts of fun regulations put on mobile phones, presumably ordered by the government. I don't think the telecom companies would make it harder for people to give them money, so I'm just going with the assumption that the Man is behind all this.

You can only use a SIM for two weeks in an unregistered phone before it shuts down. To register a foreign phone you have to wait up to ten days after signing a contract. Neither option was appealing. When I finally found an apartment after running up a moderate Skype bill, my roommate hooked me up with a Turkish phone. Another ten day wait according to TurkCell. Two weeks later, nothing. They still kept my money despite their inability to make a phone work.

In every "undeveloped" country I've been in, making a phone work goes like this: buy a SIM card, put it in, and viola, your phone works. The rationale I've heard here is that this Kafkaesque process is supposed to prevent illegally imported phone use, or some shit like that. No wonder I never got those dates with hot babes.

On a sidenote, most other foreigners I met didn't have phone problems; maybe I just suck.

Here's the real fun story, also related to sadistic import regulations.

My parents shipped me my laptop from the States, which I needed to do my coursework. It was supposed to arrive at my school. Instead, a notice from the shipping company informing me that the laptop was being held ransom by customs was delivered. Measures to combat illegal importation, once again.

The manager and secretary at my school filled me wonderful reports as to how I had to go about getting it back. In a nutshell, they told me I'd have to jump through several very expensive hoops.

I went with Latife, the school's secretary to the shipping company. It was pouring rain all day, and my socks were wet even before the torment began. In a steamy room crowded with other victims, I had to pay $100 just to get some paperwork to bring to the customs office at the airport. After trying to find an easy way out by talking to some office workers and a manager, I paid the fee and off we went to the airport, where I was set to pay more: a few hundred bucks in customs fees because the listed value of the package was over $100. But before I could do that I was supposed to comb the city in search of the tax office to register for a temporary tax number, which would cost another $100 or so, which would then enable me to pay my customs taxes, so I could get some papers to bring to the shipping company and pick up my package after paying another fee for storage.

All in all, I was looking at around $600 or more for a 2 year-old computer whose only worth had nothing to do with the machine itself, but that it contained thousands of pictures, two years of work, and my audio and video libraries. Basically, the fuckers at the customs office were going to get whatever they wanted because if I didn't pay, the government would literally just take it. Sending it back would've been another $200 for the shipping costs, plus the $400ish in customs fees anyway. What a bunch of lowlifes. My choices were to give into extortion, or let my property be stolen in plain sight.

The only redeemable aspect of a corrupt and predatory (the worst of this debacle was due to the fact that I was a foreigner) system like this, is that you can fight fire with fire. Due to an inconceivable stroke of good fortune, Latife's finacee worked in the customs office at the airport.

As soon as we arrived and she explained the situation to him, he started going through my paperwork, tearing off anything stating the declared value of my package, and instructed me to hide the papers as he handed them to me.

After lots of waiting, watching him chat with coworkers in small circles and hushed voices, more forms filled out, a trip back to the shipping company so he could throw some weight around before heading back to the airport for more paperwork, and an altered value on official documents concerning my computer, I paid about 40 Lira in customs taxes.

I still had to pay storage fees at the shipping company, and only after Latife and her fiancee begged and cajoled the managers to let me take it without a tax number, imploring them, saying that I was just a helpless student who had to start classes the next day.

Having what was rightfully mine had never felt so good. Latife and her fiancee were like angels sent to battle for me. I don't know if I ever would have gotten the obsolete hunk of silicon I'm currently writing this on if it wasn't for those two.

The shoe-shine guy made me think I was getting off lucky by paying him for something I didn't ask for or want, and the government bent me over and made me think I was lucky to pay only two-hundred something dollars for my own property.

Don't get me wrong, I've had a great time here in Istanbul, I just wish I didn't have to re-learn some basic lessons: don't trust strangers, over-friendly pedestrians, or the government.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Hustlers of Istanbul: Part 1

There are touts and hawkers and hustlers anywhere there are tourists. Part of travel is recognizing that anything too good to be true almost certainly is a hustle, and the sort of locals that start up conversations with tourists are almost certainly hustlers.

There are things one comes to expect. The taxi driver that charged me 10 Lira for a 5 minute ride in Erzurum is to be expected. Tourist prices at markets are to be anticipated. One can compile a decent list of common scams after a few months in southeast Asia. But you can always count on learning a new one the hard way after enough time goes by.

I was walking down the hill towards the football stadium in Beşıktaş as a shoe shiner was packing up his stuff. As he got up and set off down the sidewalk, a brush fell out of his case. Being the kind man I am, I picked it up and handed it to him. I was rewarded by a smile of disproportionate gratitude which should have been my first warning.

He promptly sat down, and started shining the thin strip of rubber on the toe of my boots.
"That's okay, I'm not interested" He clearly was going to ask for money.
"No problem, no problem. Thank you"
"How much is this?"
"No problem. Money no problem"
"I don't have any money."
"Where you from?"
He proceeded to do a half-ass job on my boot toes and fed me some story about sick kids, extortionate surgery bills, and a cancer-riddled wife, all while saying "Money no problem." He talked as fast as he worked as before I knew it he was asking for his money, 18 Lira, which is about $12. For a shitty toe shine.

The brilliance of this guy, beside the fact that he made me think that he had accidentally dropped the brush in the first place, was that he ran his scam so quickly and well that I almost thought I had gotten off cheap by giving him 5 Lira and telling the broken-hearted look on his face that I knew it was a good price and that was all he was getting.

The correct response would have been to laugh in his face when he asked for money and walk away, but that's not what happened and that's why he's a professional and I'm a sucker. I was half pissed off at myself, and half impressed at how smoothly the whole hustle went.

I was able to avoid all other scams, especially the obvious ones that I got lots of practice at. Walking alone down Istiklal Street on three occasions I was overtaken by solo Turkish guys who nonchalantly started asking me something in Turkish, then looked surprised when I had a stupid "I have no idea what you're saying" look on my face.

"Oh, I thought you were Turkish!" Helen Keller wouldnt've misjudged me so poorly. Or maybe all the blonde-haired, green-eyed , pale-skinned Turks hang out somewhere I've never been.

I was flattered the first time I got this line, since the dude pointed to the mustache I hadn't yet shaved off. But it wasn't convincing when they started chatting me up and eventually steered the conversation to the point where I was invited to a cafe. On none of the occasions did I feel like getting slapped with a several hundred Lira bill for a couple beers, to be paid under the glare of enormous bouncers. Nor did I want to get drugged, robbed, and possibly raped. Maybe if I didn't have class the next morning, I am a sucker for romance, after all.

The same dude even tried it on me twice. The second time, after he asked where I was going, I said I was going the same place I was going when he asked me two days prior.
"Oh, you...uh..." as he pointed at my hair.
"Yeah I shaved and got a haircut." Dumbass. Apparently we sucker Americans all look the same.
My classmate wasn't quite so astute as he was wandering around the side streets looking for my apartment one night. When he saw that he was lost, some hustler convinced Ayoub to take a look at his "bathhouse". He was plunked at a table that was instantly covered in fruit platters, bottles of alcohol, and surrounded by three Russian hookers.

When he tried to leave, they kindly handed him a 450 Lira bill. He hadn't touched any food, drink, or hooker. After he showed them he had no money, and they searched his clothes and pockets, he only got off because the manager was Syrian and Ayoub pleaded his broke-student case to him in Arabic, their common language. He considers himself lucky the dude let him out easily. I do too.

Next to come, part two: The Biggest of Hustlers in Turkey

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Korea - The Video

Over my last four or five months in Korea, I took a shitload of photos. About 25,000 roughly. The idea was originally to combine it all with photos and video that my other friends were supposed to take, and create a massive collaborative video project by animating all our photos into a time-lapse uber-project.

It never really worked out. A bunch of us got real pumped on planning the project, but no one really went through with it. I still took a shitload of rapid-fire photos and would occasionally animate them into videos for fun. Like this sweet compilation of high-fives Adam and I unleashed upon the exotic locales we visited.

Well I had always intended to take the massive bulk of photos I shot in Korea and mash it all together with some music to sort of sum up and close the door on the time I spent there. I certainly couldn't do it when I was on the road, but I knew I'd get it done once I got here to Istanbul and had my own computer again. And I knew I'd set it to 'Home' by Davide Byrne and Brian Eno. I didn't think I'd leave it until my final couple of days here to start and finish, but I did. No matter, it's done.

I guess that's it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cross-Cultural Cursing

This post contains many offensive words, in many languages. Just a warning for all you pussies out there. Also, I generally haven't scoured dictionaries and online forums to back these up, so if you know the languages I refer to and realize I fucked up, gimme a break.

I think curse words and rude sayings are great. I'm a firm believer that anything truly offensive is said not with words but with meaning. Said warmly, "You dumb fucking sonofabitch!" can be much more endearing than "You don't mean anything to anyone" said sincerely.

Traveling, one picks up all sorts of new words that help him get around. I'd tell you some, but I forgot most of them. "Baksheesh" is one that I actually recall, a widely recognized term around central Asia meaning a bribe, basically. That's a good one to smile at and pretend you don't understand when Kazakh train attendants pull you into their compartment to allegedly clear up immigration issues since you're the only foreigner on the train.

But what's most fun is learning words you shouldn't say. Like using the Italian toast chin chin in Japan. You may want to toast to someone's health, but in Japan those words make you wind up raising your glass to cock (by which I mean penis).

If you say the word fanny, as in 'fanny pack', or 'brush off your fanny', in nearly any English-speaking country outside of north America, you're talking about pussy (by which I mean vagina), which really lends those two phrases some interesting interpretations. A British instructor of mine also got a bit of a surprise when another American mentioned giving someone a wet willy. Willy is the male equivalent of fanny, duh. I guess they have a different name for licking your finger and sticking it in someone's ear over the pond.

One terminal station of the subway line I use here in Istanbul is Darüşşafaka. Now that doesn't translate into anything dirty as far as I know, but I like the idea of someone mentioning Darüşşafaka to me, and saying back, "Yeah, well Darüşşafaka you too, asshole!"

A word that can lead to great misunderstandings among black people and Koreans (I'm told the meaning is similar in Chinese, but what do I know?) is 니가 (ni-ga). This means "you" in Korea. It also sounds like "nigger" with a Korean accent. A teacher friend of mine had a middle school student who was up in the mountains with his family, enjoying a weekend hike, singing some song with ni-ga in it, when a black guy confronted him.

"What did you say?" asked the black man.
"Uh, just singing a song," said the Korean boy.
"Did you say 'nigger'?"
"Yeah. That means 'you'."
"What?" roared the black man.
"Not you! 'You!'" the Korean boy feebly explained.

The misunderstanding was cleared up. True story.

Maggie recently told me that Coca-Cola is just called coca everywhere in South America. Except, she found out, in Colombia, where it means what it sounds like. Surprisingly though, her waiter didn't actually bring her cocaine.

Disappointed at how lame all these have been? Well, I've saved the best for last.

Probably my favorite cross-cultural curse of all time is the word for sugar in Kazakh (similar in Azeri). Observe:

There's nothing like starting off your morning with tea and some cunt. In fact, a bit of cunt spread throughout the day can really keep you going, just make sure to constantly resupply yourself with cunt, or else you might find yourself running out of energy and crashing. Remember to always ask politely before taking cunt away from in front of a stranger, or even your friends. Some cunt after dinner is always nice, just don't forget to brush your teeth before you go to bed. Too much cunt can really do you damage after all.

There is no end to the juvenile humor in Kazakhstan as long as you know this wonderful word. Just ask Jamie Maslin, even asking unwitting Kazakh acquaintances how to say 'sugar' in Kazakh doesn't get old.


By a happy coincidence, a couple new foreign curse words came up organically in class today. Apparently, if you try to protest something by saying "Yeah, but...", you are basically saying 'fuck' or 'fuck it' in Polish. Nice. Another nice little tip: at a fruit market in Turkey, don't point to a peach and just say 'peach' in English. You'll sound like you're strongly accusing the merchant of being a bastard.

***end update!***

With cultural awareness like this, I don't think anyone can dispute the claim that traveling truly broadens one's mind.

Turkey Pictures!

I uploaded some photos from Turkey last night, when I should've been concentrating on my schoolwork more. Oh well.

As always, the link is on the right side bar, or just click here.

I may add some more later, but I'm leaving Turkey next week, so it probably won't be much unless they're stupid party photos of me and my classmates celebrating the end of the program tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Atlas Shrugged!

I just finished reading 'Atlas Shrugged', finally. It took me about 2.5 months and five countries. I picked it up off the shelf of a smoky hostel bookshelf in Urumqi, China. I left 'The Tipping Point' by Malcom Gladwell in its place. Not an even deal at all, but such is life.

Don't know what the book is about? Well I don't really want to explain it much, but America is going to hell in a hand basket because all the bureaucrats are lazy moochers who keep demanding that successful industrialists carry the burden of the masses despite being publicly damned by those who want their help.

I liked it a lot! Despite Rand's characters constantly inclining their heads to convey a universe of emotions and understandings that require full paragraphs to explain, I think the book really has something worthwhile to say. If I had to boil it all down into a common saying, it would be something like "Shit or get off the pot".

The heroes of the book are men and women who can do things rather than complain about shit, increasingly rare in the America of 'Atlas Shrugged'. I'm pretty sure I would fall into the category of moocher, according to this book, since I'm just aimlessly traveling and not smelting steel.

Not many books have actually affected the way I view my life, but I think reading this has really inspired me to do something more than just coast by. Not that I know what that may be, but I'll probably think about it.

Oh, and it turns out they're making a movie of the book, in three parts. As good as the book is, I bet the movie will suck. I'll still see it though. Dagny Taggart is played by a woman who is evidently a very lifelike anamatronic mannequin. I guess she doesn't have much to work with when her character in the book is inclining her head all the time, as I mentioned before, and giving looks and nods that translate into elaborate unspoken conversations with other people who barely move any facial muscles.

Read this book if you have a shitload of time and patience.

A Turkish Shave

Turkey is a fantastic place for male grooming. Dudes here have good facial hair, and as a result, there are barbers, or berbers in Turkish, everywhere. For dudes, at least. I'm told that women's hairdressing is equally pervasive and socially pertinent, but they are hidden away off the street level, mostly 'cause of this being a Muslim country and the bizarre female head modesty that goes along with that.

I got my face shaved twice so far. I even got my haircut once, which was pretty amazing, but that's a different story. There's a barber literally outside my door. I just got back from a shave, in fact.

The cost is five Lira, less than four bucks, and even that is probably a tourist price. The dude has a long white pony tail pulled from his nearly bald dome, and a pretty sweet chin/handlebar beard trimmed thin. The best part of his tiny two-chair shop is the pictures of him when he was young and at the height of early 70s Turkish clothing and hair fashion. Said photos unfortunately not pictured above, among the clearly visible tea try and glasses, mini Ataturk bust, ashtray, and foam lathering brush - all potential symbols of Turkey in their own right.

Maggie got to witness and photograph my first face-shaving. Since she's a foreigner, she might've been the first women in the place in decades, who knows.

First the dude whipped up a warm lather in the sink, painted my face for about five minutes with it, then put a new blade in the straight-edge and expertly scraped my face smooth, then lathered me again, and got any stragglers.

Some might understandably be nervous to to have a stranger take a sharp knife to their neck, especially those in earthquake-prone areas. This dude obviously had years of face-shaving experience though. He was quick and sure with his cuts, turning the blade in to his free palm to wipe the foam off as he went. He cleaned the foam out of my ears and rinsed off my face.The whole thing took about 15 minutes with an obligatory tea break.

At the end, I was freshened up with a spray of citrus-alcohol which stung like hell, but left me crisp and well scented. You can literally find these barbers everywhere. There's a lot of demand with the level of facial hair here, and I must say, Turkey has the best mustaches outside of Azerbaijan - for the plus 30 demographic of course. Young kids now just don't appreciate mustaches anywhere it seems.

Maybe I'll get around to describing how awesome my Turkish haircut was. Depends how motivated I get. Depends how lucky you are.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Coming To This

I've had yet another article published in the Exeter News-Letter, imaginatively titled "Exeter man travels through Kazakhstan."

Strangely enough, I'm not getting tons of emails from book publishers and travel companies desperate for my talents, knowledge, and wit. In fact, I haven't received anything. Yeah, I think it's really bizarre too.

One problem might be the absence of any link to my blog, at least in the online article. I'll have to send a stern letter to someone high up...

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque was wicked cool. but less blue than I thought it would be. It was only the second mosque I'd ever been in, the first being next to a huge road in Azerbaijan.

The Blue Mosque is built across the way from Aya Sofia, and the dude who had it built wanted to one-up Aya Sofia, a classic case of keeping up with the Joneses. It's not as big, but it is a mosque, not a church, and many people think it's more beautiful and architecturally impressive than Aya Sofia. One thing's for sure, the dome hasn't fallen in yet.

Basing judgements on the exterior, which is again not blue but an impressive progression of domes and half domes, I thought the mosque would be full of different rooms to wander through, and I would eventually be led into the center beneath the main dome.

Instead, it is one massive open room, with the main dome over the center and half domes and smaller domes around the perimeter. A shitload of electric lights were suspended from the ceiling, making an interesting visual effect with all the wires and cables hanging down. I couldn't decide if it ruined the view of the gorgeous stained glass windows lining the main dome and all of the intricate tile work and Arabic calligraphy, or if they created their own interesting visual pattern in the space the cables fell through.

Most of the enormous room was gated off to infidels like myself, who had to use a side entrance separate from the Muslim entrance. Everyone had to take off their shoes and put them into a bag and ladies were given large skirts and scarves to cover up their foreign immodesty.

Turkey is reportedly 99% Muslim, clearly a number that just represents the fact that only 1% of the population identify as Christian or Jew or whatever, and everyone else just becomes Muslim by default.

There were foreign Muslims milling about on the carpets, Korean tour-groups sitting cross-legged in a circle listening to their guide, exchange students barely adhering to modesty regulations, and plenty of Turkish tourists all craning their neck upwards toward the massive dome and running their eyes over the insanely intricate and beautiful tile patterns in their geometric splendor.

Upon entry, you can take a free pamphlet entitled "What is Islam?" A few of the highlights:

"...the verses of the Qur'an are never found to contradict modern science."
Yeah, I bet it's just as spot-on as the bible.

"Allah is not indifferent to this world."
AIDS, cancer, racism, pain, and war are all part of the plan, don't worry.

Paying tithes is a "a purification of one's wealth."
Funny how many supreme entities need some cash.

Everyone is "naturally inclined toward Islam before birth."
Oh really?

It all makes about as much sense as other religions' claims. One certainly can't argue about religion's ability to construct awe-inspiring buildings though.

This place definitely warrants multiple visits. B,est part of the Blue Mosque? Free entry.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Sight Seeing! The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern, otherwise known as the Yerebatan Sarnıcı or Sunken Cistern - was number one on my list of tourist sights. I like the idea of cisterns, mostly because I recall playing Tomb Raider and swimming through underwater tunnels and climbing over pillars and jumping into bright clear water lit by crumbing overhead domes.

It wasn't quite like that, believe it or not. The entrance was an unimpressive block with a ticket window and staircase inside. It's an underwater reservoir though, so I don't know what I was expecting. It was built and fed by aqueducts more than 1500 years ago to keep fresh water against any possible siege of the city.

James Bond rowed through the place in From Russia With Love, before there were walkways built through it. I was a little let down with the crowds of people chattering among the dimly lit marble columns perspiring with water that dripped from the brick ceilings. And with the trade show style tables set up at the base of the stairs to advertise other tourist destinations. And with the lovely photos placed here and there among the walkways. I mean, sure they were great water-themed photos of some beautiful place in Turkey with blue skies and bright sun and sunken ruins, but when did an ancient cistern become an art gallery? The final touch of tack was the "Cistern Cafe" at the end of the walkway, signed in diner-esque neon.

But I liked it! Sure, the water was only a foot deep or so, ruining my fantasies of swimming through underwater passageways, but it was still calming and peaceful despite the chatter. They could've chose some classier lighting than orange and red tungsten, but the hundreds of columns in precise rows created a feeling of depth and distance beyond the actual size of the place, which is pretty big anyway.

Where there was enough light, you could watch ripples spread out in perfect circles as the ceilings dripped perspiration, and lazy fish floated here and there. There are mysterious blocks with Medusa's head carved into them at the base of two columns, and I was hit with fat drops of water a couple times, forcing me to clean off my glasses and camera with my t-shirt.

Something else that was particularly impressive was that when I exited up a different set of stairs, I realized I was halfway down the block, and all the buildings and roads and traffic are driving on top of the cistern. I would've liked to have seen the place with less people, and I even went on a Monday, but who am I to complain? I'm a bloody tourist too.

A Big Commie Protestival

After almost three weeks in Istanbul, I've finally got out and saw some of the sights. The first sight was a lot of people.

May Day is apparently a day of protests and communist folk songs. Only the second year since people were allowed to protest in Taksim Square, the place was packed with thousands of commies out of the hundreds of thousands of people present. There were other people protesting too, it was sort of like a protest festival - or protestival - but communists are the most interesting.

I could hear the music from my apartment, which is really close to the square. I headed out with two of my flatmates and one's girlfriend and father.

Roads were barricaded and filled with people rather than cars for a change, people were wearing red, there were banners of Turkish communist martyrs, and even portraits of Chairman Mao on some of the banners. One dude had a Che Guavara t-shirt on.

That's my flatmate's dad in the picture. Apparently my flatmate's parents are still in the communist party and Dad there was really amped to get out and do some protesting.

The highlight of the May Day festivities, after the labyrinthine detour through crumbling side streets just to get into the entrance, was watching people rock out to protest songs from the 70s and 80s that occasionally sounded like Irish folk tunes with some trilling, and later, I ate a really good sandwich of little spiced meat patties and veggies for $2.

I followed up this mind-broadening day out by my first real day of touristy sightseeing. Coming soon.