Monday, May 31, 2004

The Most Dangerous Man on the Plane

The flight back from Damascus to Istanbul wasn't too bad. But it was a different story going from Istanbul to JFK! "Hello," the security lady greeted me. "Where are you flying from?"
"Souria?" she asked. Her eyes glaze a little.
"What were you doing there?"
"Visiting a friend."
All the usual questions ensued. "Is there anything in your luggage that could be considered a weapon?"
"Well, there's a knife with a blade about nine inches long."
"You bought it in Souria?"
She put a couple of red stamps on the back of my passport. They searched my carry-on bag and then escorted me down to the tarmac, where my bags were brought over. "Open please!" Four airport security men searched through my clothes and gifts. After a few minutes they escorted me back to the holding area. They held on to my boarding pass until people started boarding, and then I had a personal escort all the way to the plane entrance. I have to admit I kinda enjoyed the attention, and it was fun to be the badass.
Surprisingly, in New York I didn't have any problems at all.

Sunday, May 30, 2004

Crac des Chevaliers

This is a photo of the Crac des Chevaliers, probably the most spectacular medieval castle in the world. Built by Muslims, expanded by Crusaders, and reconquored by Sultan Beybars in 1271, it covers 3000 square meters and stands majestically over a verdant valley. Inside you can walk through the hallways and couryards garrisoned by knights of old. Climb the towers and peer out through the narrow windows, and imagine what it must have been like to stand there and watch the invading hordes gather below, beating their war drums and screaming for blood.

I'm baaack

Details to follow... :-)

Friday, May 28, 2004

Return of the Native

I took as a title of this web log Tales of Brave Ulysses, which some of you may recognize or remember as a song by the 1960s rock band Cream. It also alludes to Tennyson's poem Ulysses. And now here we are. In a mere 12 hours's time I shall sail, like Tennyson's Ulysses, beyond the sunset and the baths of all the Western stars. My plane is scheduled to leave for Istanbul at 4:20 am local time, and a mere six(!) hours after landing, I'm flying to New York, then Cincinnati, then Houston. I'm calling it the mini-express tour. I should be home around 11:45 pm Houston time on the same calendar day as I leave Damascus. Stay tuned; hopefully I'll add some pictures thanks to the repeated suggestions of one Fraulien Wagner, and there are many more adventures to follow. I yet must tell you about magical Crac des Chevaliers and the musty Damascus Museum, but we're about out of time and I must take my leave of you. This shall be my final post from Damascus and the Middle East, so I feel compelled to provide some form of closure. I'll leave you, then, with another passage from Ulysses. See you soon!

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rest unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains; but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
-- Ulysses

Thursday, May 27, 2004

Attn All Hotmail E-Mailers

I can no longer access Hotmail from Omar's. I'm having to access the web from the state-run ISP, and the Syrians block Hotmail. I was able to get to it before because I was using a different ISP. Anything you have sent me the last couple of days remains unread. Until I get back, try reaching me at my address. MSN Chat is also unreliable. I can log in to see if I have email but I can't read them.

Mail-Order Grooms

Our guide in Palmyra told us a couple of stories I must now relate to you. First, he said that his brother in Colorado was a tour guide as well. One day an American woman from Colorado came and enjoyed the tour with him. Later she returned to Syria and boldly proposed marriage to him. Now they live together in Colorado.

Another one: a Scottish woman on a camel-back tour of the desert became enamored of one of the guide's assistants, a 27-year-old named Ali. Though they shared no language, they communicated through sign language and within a few days she'd fallen in love with him. She is arranging for his visa to go with her to Scotland. She writes him emails, and our guide translates them for him. This because 1) she doesn't speak Arabic, and 2) even if she did, Ali can't read and write. He's illiterate! This is a riot. And women criticize men for taking mail-order brides....


Driving into Palmyra at night you are greeted by a glowing section of Corinthian columns standing about thirty feet high that trail off into the darkness. You get the feeling that Palmyra was not too long ago a prime resort area; there's a bedouin tent restaurant (closed for remodeling (?!)), a number of small souvenir shops, and a few four and five-star hotels. Overall the city is small -- I'm totally guessing about 3,000 people. We planned on visiting the ruins in the morning so we checked into the Palmyra hotel and looked for a restaurant. We ended up at Cham Palace, an ornate hotel with an amazing lobby -- columns echoing those in the ruins outside supported an arched ceiling painted with blue sky and light clouds. Mirrors at the ends of the lobby extended the collonade and sky forward into the distance, and the marbled wall held a Greek fresco of Cassiopoeia. In an almost Twilight Zone twist, there were absolutely no guests in sight. None. The three of us alone enjoyed mushroom soup and grilled chicken as the desert wind rattled outside. We talked with some of the local vendors. In 2000, they say, business was booming. And now? A Syrian tour guide made a downward swipe with his hand. "Almost nothing. I might get one tour every two weeks." That's a shame. I know the politics made the situation tense, Syria has so much hospitality and history to offer, if only given the chance.

We tried to find an open bar and settled for the one in the hotel -- again, we were the only guests. After one drink we decided to retire to the rooms. I could only find two channels on the TV -- a French station TV5 europe and a French-dubbed Mexican movie about a hitman with a heart. He looked like Charles Manson. Omar and Tarik had mentioned CNN but I couldn't find it. In the morning we had breakfast and saw a table of French tourists. When they heard us speaking English they seemed startled and stared at us. (I never claimed the French don't sport a hefty attitude!)

We started our visit to Palmyra at the museum so that we could both see the exhibits and pick up a tour guide. Most impressive inside were the funerary busts of second and third-century families and the samples of Palmyran script, which looks a little like a cross between Greek and Hieratic. With guide in tow, we headed over to the ruins. Palmyra was a major stop for caravans traveling along the Old Silk Road. They paid protection taxes to the city, and it prospered. By the second century they had amassed enough wealth to build a magnificient city, a paradise in the desert. Although only 30% of it now stands exposed, it is certainly enough to rival the ruins of Ephesus. Walk among its streets and share the road with the ghosts of 90 generations of merchants, noblemen, artists, and hustlers. The guide walked us among the columns and explained what was what. We saw a bathing pool, the agora, the processional way, an oil press, the city's drainage system. Originally the Palmyrans worshipped one of the many Baals, and eagle images were common. He showed us one area where excavations reveal another city lies beneath this one that easily dates back to the late Bronze age, meaning people have lived here at least five thousand years.

Outside the city stood crumbling towers where the rich Palmyrans buried their dead. One is still in good repair and we visited it. The tower has 96 steps to the top and on each floor there were crypts where the dead could be placed, mausoleum style, with a funerary bust as the cover. Many of those busts are now in the museum, but we also saw a number of statues with the heads broken off. Tarik asked about those and the guide explained that the heads were the most beautiful, small and easy to carry, so the many waves of passers-by through the ages simply stole them. I believe he said some of them are in the Danish museum, and they're no more likely to give them back than the French are to give up the mummies they stole from these same crypts in the 1930s. We also visited an underground crypt with a painting of Achillies, but unfortunately, no photos allowed.

The Road to Palmyra

The Syrian desert swept us in eagerly, and the occasional sign advertising Palmyra lured us further into the vast expanse of nothing. (The same signs also pointed the way to Baghdad, but we didn't go that way.) Those of you who have never been here and picture Syria, well, this is your stereotype right here. Dusty hills roll up towards the sky and occasionally you could see the bedouin tents off in the distance, where robed figures ministered to livestock in the twilight. Most of the vehicles on the road were Syrian and Iraqi trucks going to and from the border; some were garishly colored. There were also a few (very few) tour buses. Although the trucks are supposed to stay to the right, well, they don't. Omar would refuse to pass them on the right; he'd beep the horn a few times till they pulled off to the side for him to pass, and if they didn't he'd lean on the horn until he was just holding it down! Driving through this environment, with a Syrian and a Sudanese and listening to Lebanese radio, is about as foreign an experience as a Texas boy can have.


Two days ago, May 26, Omar, Tarik and I rolled into Aleppo in the late afternoon. Omar and I both were impressed and felt Aleppo was perhaps cleaner and better laid-out than Damascus, though it might not be prudent to say so to a Damascus resident. Apparently the cities are in competition Houston-Dallas style. The Aleppo dialect was a source of much amusement for Omar -- he said it's nothing like the Damascus speech. We asked a taxi driver for directions, and we learned our first word of Aleppo-speak: say-we means straight ahead, and is completely different from doghre, the word they use in Damascus. We continued to use it the rest of the trip. Wayn? ("Where?") Say-we! ("Straight!") Soon we checked into the hotel and I had to submit my passport. I was annoyed at first, thinking this would be their way to charge more to the rich American. Well, they did. Omar and Tarik shared a room for $30 and they charged me alone $40 US. However, the room was still a bargain when compared to US prices. In the room, a sign sternly warned me "Hotel management does not undertake any liability for ready money nor valuables unless deposited with reception against voucher!"

We went out to eat for dinner. The back streets of Aleppo are exactly what you think of as the Middle East -- quaint, narrow stone streets framed by tall old buildings made of large bricks. Dinner was a fancy restaurant on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the Aleppo Citadel. It was enchanting, but my stomach was still too weak to eat much and afterwards I ended up asking them to take me back to the room to sleep.

In the morning we got breakfast and went to the Citadel of Aleppo, an old fortress built in the 10th century on top of a hill. There a stone staircase leads to the main entrance, and once inside you can follow passages were soldiers and kings once trod a thousand years ago. For all that, most of the rooms were unremarkable -- high-arched ceilings and bare brick walls with the introverted windows used by archers to fend off attacks. The top floor has an ornate king's hall with wooden walls and a domed ceiling with stained glass and an impressive chandelier. Ah, but beyond the fortress lay the remains of an entire village -- a veritable maze of close-knit buildings with walls yet half-standing. Here lay the hammam where the leaders of the city planned and plotted; there stands the amphitheatre where the officials and entertainers addressed the people. And all below the crumbling walls stands the eternal city of Aleppo -- the domes and spires of its mosques, the green squares of public parks -- all stretching out to the horizon.

After the Citadel we walked towards the main bazaar area. The bazaar is organized by product, and we entered through the textile side. On the sidewalk, two young boys lay out a fleece and weer whipping it with long sticks. They called out something to us which was soon translated to "baldy!" and we figured they meant Omar. In one of the first shops, Omar stopped to admire one of the rugs. "Don't!" I told him. "Any second now a kid's gonna come running up to you!" As if on cue, here came a plump lad with glasses. Marhaba! "See?" Omar bought the carpet from him and told me it was his gift to me for the trip. What a guy! On into the bazaar we wandered. A guy there called out to me as we passed by. "Austrailian?" I ignored him but Tarik went ahead and talked to him. "Laa, Ameriki," he answered for me. "American? We do not get many American tourists. You are welcome!" He gave us his card and told us if we needed to change any money he was our man. Heh.

We soon tired of the bazaar and returned to the car to begin the journey to Palmyra.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

The Hammam

I should start by admitting I've never been in a sauna or anything like it.

The Turkish baths were a tradition in the Ottoman empire, and it is just as popular today as it was 500 years ago. There are separate facilities for men and women, and I'm told the ones for women aren't as nice inside (I guess they compared notes!). Walk inside and there is a lobby area where an attendant takes your belongings (wallet, camera) and locks them in little safety deposit boxes behind him. He gives you the key. If you want the massage or the scrub-down you pay more for that and they give you colored bracelets for each service. After the scrub-down or massage, the attendant will take one of the bracelets from you. Then go to the back of this lobby area and undress. An attendant holds up a sheet in front of you as you slip off underwear and then wraps the sheet around your waist. At no time is anyone interested in seeing you naked and men don't expose themselves at all. They give you wooden shoes, like slippers, and I immediately hated them. They were high in the back and my toes slid forward off the front edge, making them hard to walk in. They also gave us a bar of soap and a scrubbing pad.

From the lobby you enter a hallway at the back. Restrooms are off to the right and sport Turkish-style toilets. That is, no toilet; just a ceramic hole in the floor. Instead of toilet paper thay have a rubber hose attached to a water faucet. It takes some getting used to! Turn left in the hallway and there is a large, heavy wooden door. We pulled it open and stepped into an oven. The steam was so thick you couldn't see, and my first impulse was to panic and run outside. You feel like you're going to choke on the intense moisture and the heat pounds at your body. There are faucets with large sinks under them. People fill thenm with water and, using a bowl, scoop out water and pour it over themselves. Then they wash. I was pouring cold water on myself in a desperate attempt to cool off.

There is another room, even hotter, where they go after that. I couldn't do it. I stepped back outside to cool off for a moment, and then went on to the place where the scrubber awaited. He sat crosslegged on the floor and reminded me of Buddha -- the old fat bald one -- and sported a glove made of sandpaper. He used it like a pumice stone to scrub my arms, legs, back and chest. After this he took the bracelet and sent me on to the next guy, who gave me a massage. Far from the gentle relaxation massage you might expect in Cancun, he dug in vigorously. I certainly wouldn't fall asleep during a massage like this one!

After that you go back to the bowl room and wash off again, then come out. A guy helps you change the sheet around your waist and dries your face, then wraps a second towel around your shoulders. A third goes on your head. You go back into the lobby and sit for a while, cooling off. They'll serve tea if you like, and then you're good to go.

I gather that you're supposed to feel invigorated by this, but after it was over I only wanted to sleep.

New Horizons Damascus

Omar took me to visit the New Horizons in Damascus. After having worked at New Horizons for almost eight and a half years, I've had opportunity to visit centers in Austin, Dallas, Seattle (Bellevue) and Boston. They're all pretty much the same, but this one is different. The first thing you'll notice is that the training center is in its own building, three stories high. There is a patio outside with a restaurant where students and instructors go for lunch or short breaks. Inside, the front desk attendants are all scarved, as were all the female instructors. Like the rest of the buildings in Damascus, this one isn't handicap friendly and there is no elevator. However, it's the only smoke-free building I've seen so far. Everything is tidy, even the A+ lab, and the equipment is up to date. In addition to computer classes, they offer business English taught by an American ex pat from New York. People there were friendly.

Monday, May 24, 2004

It had to happen...

The day started with some souvenir shopping. Don't let anyone tell you all the antiques here are cheap. They're not.

Lunch at a coffee shop, and then Omar took me to a hammam, a Turkish bath. More about that later. Today I suffered from a bad case of food poisoning. I blame Zaman al Kheyer restaurant because Noor was sick too. It hit her quicker than it did me. During the day I started to get a queesy feeling but blew it off until around 10:00 at night, when it hit full-force while I was at the hammam. I'll spare you the details. Omar brought me home and I stayed in bed for 14 hours. Feeling better now, but still weak and unsettled, not at all looking forward to trying to eat. I'll stick with breads and other cooked foods from now on, even in the fancy restaurants. On the bright side, maybe I'll lose a few pounds!

This afternoon we're taking a bus to Aleppo and touring around there tomorrow, then that afternoon on to Palmyra. I'm going to go on with the scheduled plans more-or-less on faith that I'll be feeling well by tomorrow. I don't know how many opportunities I'll have to post while we travel, so you might not hear anything for a couple of days. If I get a chance I'll at least post a short note.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Omayyad Mosque & Famous Graves

We started out the morning with a visit to the Omayyad Mosque. I have to admit, at first I was thinking I was about as Mosqued out as a person could be, but I'm glad I went. It has a huge courtyard and the site of worship for three thousand years (it was a temle to Hadad and then Jupiter before becoming a church and then a mosque). They did the call to prayer while we were standing in it. There is more than one muezzein and to hear them all together while standing in that place is an amazing experience. In the area of the mosque are the crypts of Ali, Salah ad Din (Saladin), and John the Baptist, and we saw those.

Didn't get to the museum because we were waiting on Tarik and he had to work until too late to go. Coffee at Noor's with her younger brother and mom. Coffee here means Turkish coffee unless you ask for Nescafe, which is basically American-style instant. Dinner at a cool restaurant called Zaman al Kheyer, located out of town towards the airport. It's huge, and kind of resembles a mini-golf course, complete with a mini volcano. (Later I would not find the restaurant so cool, but that will be tomorrow's post!) The food here is so cheap if you stay out of the hotels. Afterwards, off to the Meridian to watch the bellydancers. Not really different from the ones in the US, but maybe that's because we were in a touristy area. Omar says there are gypseys here but his friends talked him out of taking me. Said it wasn't so safe; we would get ripped off. So we didn't go.

Saturday, May 22, 2004

OK People

Despite all the history and culture I am experiencing on this trip, I see that the comments most likely to elicit response are the ones about Middle Eastern gays. There's nothing on TV like "Queer Eye for the Straight Arab," nor "Queer as Bedouins"; there is no "Walid & Ghayda" to rival "Will & Grace." I know you're all disappointed. If you want I can ask Omar to find me a Damascene gay bar so I can report on it for you. :-P (Oh, and for those of you who have stumbled across my site and don't know me, I am most definitely straight!)

Omar took me to the bazaar area and we went into some of the shops. There is a lot of the same stuff that Turkey has, like the rugs, etc., but it looks like the prices are gonna be better. I got a new black suit, tailored, with a dress shirt and tie. Total price: $119. When we went to dinner I realized I forgot to put on my belt. We walked into a clothing store and came out with a new belt. Price? $6. There are a few tourist busses, and Omar's friend Tarik says they're mostly French, German or Spanish people. Not too many Americans! The old streets around the bazaar are very narrow and have been covered by a metal roof to provide year-round shade. Unfortunately cars are alllowed to drive in the area, and the trapped, combined smells of spices and exhaust are enough to choke a dozen donkeys.

In the evening we met Noor's mother at a fancy restaurant in an exercise center (don't ask; it makes sense if you see it -- they have a nice pool area and in the evening the tables are set up outside around it--no one is in the pool then). I had a mustard chicken similar to what you might get at some Mexican restaurants. Afterwards Noor's mom invited us to visit for tea tomorrow evening.

Afterwards we met up with Omar's friend Tarik and drove to the top of a mountain on the side of the city. You could see the city sprawled out below, white and yellow lights peppered with green from the mosques. We sat in a cafe and Omar and Noor shared a nargileh.

Odds & Ends about Damascus

Haven't seen too much yet but here are a couple of curious points:

There is a satellite station called Melody Hits where across the bottom of the screen is a ticker. Rather than news or info, it's a place where people can post SMS Chat messages in Arabic or English letters. Most of it is from kids of about 14, it seems.

Beggars come ring your doorbell here.

Some cars play music when they go in reverse, like the familiar beep-beep-beep of trucks, only Omar tells me it's the Lambada. (?!)

Men walking down the street together often hold hands.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Al Khawali Restaurant

The restaurant where Omar and Noor took me for dinner was originally a house built during the Mamluk age in 1368, and is located on Medhat Pasha road, known in the Bible as the street called Straight. You just can't get this kind of atmosphere in Houston. :o) After dinner we went to a coffee shop called InHouse, which is similar to a Starbuck's. Then we dropped off Noor and went to a nice bar at the Sheraton. There was a TV; people were watching wrestling. OK, maybe this atmosphere is available in Houston! There wasn't much else to do, everything was closed today.

"The street called Straight is straighter than a corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow. St. Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but "the street which is called Straight." It is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe."

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad , 1869

Friday is Sunday

We slept in until 4:30 p.m. today, but I still have dark circles under my eyes. I don't think I'll ever get adjusted to the time zone difference. Curiously, Syria is on the same time zone as Istanbul. I expected an hour difference. I don't have to deal with a Turkish keyboard anymore; it's English but has red Arabic letters written in the corners of the keys. I don't really feel like I lost a day, because Omar says most places are closed. Later we're going out for coffe and ... should I call it a very late brunch? Many TV stations on digital satellite are in English with Arabic subtitles. American hip-hop is big here.

I found an article about the McDonald's bombing in Istanbul. If it makes anyone feel better, it was on the Asian side, and I wasn't staying on that side. That's curious; I would have expected it to be in Taksim. Anyway it doesn't worry me too much. In a city 4 times the size of Houston something like that is bound to happen once in a while.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Trip to Syria

The cab driver to the airport didn't speak any English so the drive was a quiet one -- I may have even nodded off at one point! At the airport, I had an English Toffee Coffee while I waited for time to board and headed over to the gate. There was a flight there already for Tev Aviv and they were boarding very slowly. So... my flight had moved and no one knew where! Finally found it and everything went smoothly. It was about a 90 minute flight after takeoff. No hitches and no problems. Damascus from the air looked like a black ocean with the street lights below forming waves of gold passing under us as we came in for a landing. Immigration was slow but no problems; I traded dollars for Syrian Pounds. Looks like I'll have to re-learn Arabic numbers. A circle is a 5 and a dot is a zero. Omar and his fiancee picked me up at the airport and drove me into town. He lives in a very good part of town. He took me to a fancy bar so we could catch up and then back to his apartment. Everything is fine and very safe.

By email I was notified there was a bomb around 6 pm in Istanbul at a McDonald's but no one was hurt. I can't speak to that; I didn't hear anything about it in Istanbul and I didn't even leave for the airport until 8:30. There are no McDonald's in Syria, so I think I'm OK! :-P

Omar says hello everyone. He has shaved his head but otherwise he looks the same.

İstanbul Arkeoloji Müzesi

This morning I mailed my postcards and wandered about looking for souvenirs. After completely striking out, I flipped through my trusty Lonely Planet guide (everyone has one). In it, I saw a paragraph about the Istanbul Archaeology Museum, which, according to the guide, houses Greek and Roman statuary in one buildlng along with sarcophagi from Sidon. In the other are "Hittite and other archeological finds." After some directions like "Turn left at the tree in the middle of the road," I finally found it tucked in an obscure corner of the city not too far from the cistern. The Graeco-Roman side was pretty nice, lots of statues of classical figures, a few gods, aristocrat-types whose names are long forgotten, and the mummified skeleton of a king of Sidon from 500 B.C. He still had some hair on his head. Then I walked over to the other building with the Hittite and "other" section. Paydirt.

Inside they house some of the most amazing exhibits in the world. They had statuary from Sumer and numerous cuneiform tablets at every level of development, from early pictograms through classical Babylonian. Pre-Islamic carvings from Yemen. Egyptian sarcophagi, ushabti and canopic jars. Hittite gods. I was absolutely shocked to turn a corner and face the lions and dragons of the Ishtar Gate. Not photos, mind you. The real deal, built by Nebuchadnezzar II, in all its glazed-brick, Babylonian glory. It wasn't even roped off!

So this afternoon, wandering the back streets of Istanbul, I gazed upon stelae and statuary seen and perhaps touched by kings of ancient Babylon and Assyria, including Nebuchadnezzar and Tiglath-Pileser III. The ancient world feels so close.

Maddeningly, there is no gift shop. If there were I would clean them out. I even asked around, incredulous. You have all these amazing things in the museum and I can't even buy one replica? Nothing? Am I now to content myself with bronze pepper-grinders and Turkish delight? I wish I knew how to curse in Turkish.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Hey, am I being hit on?

Twice tonight men have struck up conversations with me and offered to go with me to Taksim Square to buy me a beer. Both of them mentioned gay bars as the best places to hang out. I told them both no, FYI.

Kurds and Cash in Istanbul

This evening about 10:30 as I was walking along a girl of about nine approached me selling packages of tissue. What to to? On the one hand, buying her napkins would encourage her parents to continue putting her on the street to sell napkins. But would she go hungry? I told her, "Follow me." We walked to a kiosk, and I told the man, "Let her have whatever she wants to eat or drink. I'll pay for it." He looked at her and then at me. "No." I was taken aback, as you might imagine. "Why?" He wouldn't tell me. I figured it was just racism (she's Kurdish) so I walked away with her, planning to buy something myself and just give it to her.

A man came up to me. "Excuse me, what are you saying to her?" I explained the situation. "No; do not buy her anything. Her parents feed her; she eats. She is a thief. I caught her stealing a few days ago." I told him if he was her age and living on the street he might steal too. He shook his head vigorously. "No. I worked my whole life but I am no thief. I used to try to help her because she is a Kurd. I am Kurd too but she is gypsy Kurd. She told me once how much money she gets in a day. One hundred million lira!"

He and I talked for a while about him and his life in Turkey. The little girl hung around tenaciously despite his trying to run her off. He yelled at her, and even stepped towards her. She stepped back a little but didn't bat an eye. I began to see this child was already quite street savvy. He bought me a beer (Efes Dark) and after a time I left. The girl found me, of course, and I gave her a million lira for being so persistent.

Perhaps I should explain to those of you unfamiliar with Turkey's astronomical inflation rate. One Turkish lira is worth $0.00000067. One dollar U.S. buys 1.5 million lira. Cokes cost up to 3 million, and nice pair of shoes, 60 million. There are no commas on the bills so it's tough to tell a 500000 note from a 5000000 note. It helps to read the words instead. "Beş Milyon" vs "Beşyüz Bin."


Short version:

This morning when I got up there was no water. Welcome to the Third World! Fortunately it was back on in the evening.

Today's tour included:

The Hippodrome. Still lame even after a guide's explanation. Apparently the obelisk is real (Egyptian and representing Thutmose III). Doesn't look authentic; looks like granite.

The Blue Mosque. Built in the 1600s, it's stately and majestic. Women are allowed into the mosque without headcoverings, which galls the Muslims in Damascus. The Blue Mosque is called that because of some blue tiles on the inside. The mosque itself isn't blue.

The Hagia Sofia. Built by Justinian in the 6th Century; it was a chuch for a thousand years until the Ottomans came and made it a mosque. Today it is a museum, thanks to Mustafa Kemal Attatürk, the founder of the modern secular Turkish state. This picture shows how the Muslims adapted the church into a mosque by adding their own decor in a way that blended with the existing architecture.

Carpeters! Of course they made us stop and get a lecture about Turkish carpets, made tolerable by serving apple tea. No one bought anything. He asked where everyone was from. Now that was interesting. People from Azerbaijan, Brazil, Korea, Malaysia, and Germany, but only three of us from the US--a Jewish couple from California and me.

The Grand Bazaar. If you've seen the Spice Bazaar, this is that, on steroids. It's huge and touristy. Ugh. I have to tell those of you expecting souveniers, I haven't found anything yet worthy of bringing back to you! Seriously now. Who needs a fez? 'Cause I can get you one! Or a painting of an Ottoman officer with a big moustache? Pointed slippers? I haven't even bought myself anything yet except for a CD.

Lunch was at the SAME RESTAURANT as the day before. They served the SAME MEAL. And somehow it was less adequate.

Topkapı Palace is actually a complex of buildings used by the Ottomans. There is a place for the harem there. They said the Ottomans would take Russian and Ukranian girls as slaves about age 6, then raise them in the Ottoman ways and traditions. The best were married off to the sultans. Boys fared little better; they wree castrated about the same age and given the job of tending the harem. I wonder what the human rights people would have to say about the Ottomans if they were still around. Today is a national holiday and the place was packed with locals. Turks come in all styles. You can see a woman covered in black robes walking arm-in-arm with one in tight pants.

The Suleiman Mosque looked a great deal like the Blue Mosque, but with better carpet.

I'll try to update later.

By the way, it has been pointed out to me that I have been to Kuşadasi, so yesterday was in fact not my first time in Asia. Give me a break; it's been a while since I had geography!

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Dolmabahçe, etc.

The tour. There is too much to tell and I am too sleepy to go into detail. But here goes: For today I signed up for one of those cheesy tour groups. I know, I know! But I was touring by myself and figured, at least I'll have a guide and I can meet fellow tourists. Mistake. Anyway:

The tour bus was actually on time. Argh! The bus picked me up at 8:30 and we drove around picking up other tourists at their hotels. Then we drove to a central meeting place where a lot of touristy minibuses waited for us to join them. We existed the bus so we could be sorted by number, and someone presented me with a sticker for Tour #6. As I entered the #6 bus I surveyed the tour group. Mostly older people from European countries. Many spoke only German, so our tour guide introduced herself twice: "Hello, my name is Isha, and today we will be going to the Spice Market, on a cruise of the Bosporous, and the Rumeli Fortress. Then after lunch it's on to Dolmabahçe Palace, and across the Bosporous Bridge to Çamlica Hill. Guten Morgen, mine Name ist Isha...."

As the bus begins to move, she explains how Istanbul is divided into two parts, the European and the Asian side.

The Spice Market. After a warning about pickpockets I shifted my wallet to the front pocket. The Spice Market is located in an old building dating from the 1500s, and inside is about 100 shops selling teas and spices, tea cups, jewelry, Turkish Delight, etc. They have something called adana that looks particularly unappetizing. Imagine a long stick of walnuts covered in a congealed syrup. It resembles nothing so much as a giant turd. Didn't try any!

Sales people reach out to shake your hand. It's a ruse, 'cause they don't let go easily. One Turk paid me a complement by addressing me in French. Who-hoo! I was able to fake him out with my substantial knowledge of French: "Bon jour... bien... non, merci!"

The Bosporous Cruise. I have little to say about this abysmal experience. They herded us on to a boat and took us up and down the Bosporus; that is, between Europe and Asia. This was actually pretty cool for aout the first five minutes. After that I was just sleepy. The two sides look the same. On either side the land rises up sharply from the harbor. There is no sand. The land slopes up at a steep angle and is dotted with many trees. All along the sides are tan buildings with russet roofs.

Rumeli Fortress. Probably the most intersting stop, it was of course the one were we spent the least amount of time. It was built to help conquor Constantinople. Now the walls are starting to crumble. The Turks added seats for a mini-amphitheatre. However, they haven't mowed the area in some time and we had to fight through some weeds...

Lunch. Best forgotten. We drove right past Dolmabahçe to spend an hour in traffic getting to the designated restaurant. Not fun. Chatted with a gay couple from the Netherlands. Their favorite places to tour are China and Italy; but they also really enjoyed Macau and Namibia. They asked me about Syria: aren't you concerned about dealing with customs? They told me about how US customs people didn't know where Macau was and they were very suspicious of that stamp! I explained that I expected to get scrutinized with a microscope but didn't care.

Dolmabahçe Palace. This is the Palace used by the last few sultans. It is truly the Versailles of the East. After paying extra for my camera (6 million) and donning shower caps on my shoes, we entered the palace. There were more chandeliers than I could count, and each room was more opulent than the last.

Asia. After the palace we took the bridge across to Asia and spent a few minutes at a photo stop. To take a bridge from Europe to Asia seems strange.

Dinner. After buying a few postcards, took them to dinner at Acropol Byzas Cafe. Very fancy & a little expensive. I filled out the postcards as I ate and then came back to the room.

Monday, May 17, 2004

The Cistern and Beyoğlu

The Cistern. After forcing myself to sleep in this morning (referring to the 17th), I headed out so see whatever I could without overlapping attractions from the upcoming tours. First on the list, the Yerebatan Sarnici, aka the Cistern, a hugh underground water storage facility dating back to Justinian. Descend down the steps into the 6th Century cistern, where more than 300 columns brood in perpetual twilight. The floor is covered in what appeared to be about a foot of water, and small fish darted about amongst gleaming coins thrown there by well-wishers. (Get it? Well-wishers? Nevermind!) The cold, moist air seeps into your skin, and the classical music piped in does little to improve the mood of the place. Over the water extends a long ramp that brings you around the cistern to the back, where in one corner stand two peculiar pillars. They stand atop large stone-carved Medusa heads. Medusa, apparently, was believed to ward off evil spirits (something which today is accomplished by the "evil eye," a series of three concentric circles of yellow over white over blue. It's ubiquitous and not a little annoying.) The statues of Medusa are at odd angles -- one is rotated 90 degrees and the other is upside-down. No one knows why for sure but one guess is that it represents the angles at which Perseus saw her reflection in his shield as he slew her.

After the cistern I paid a short visit to the area where the Hippodrome once stood. Talk about lame. More on that later.

From there I took a taxi to Taksim Square in Beyoğlu and walked along Istiklal Caddesi, the main shopping street for Turks. In the CD music shop I picked up some CDs (I'll edit this later and tell you more). I looked at the clothes as well -- they are about 30% cheaper than in the US but not really styles I would wear at home.

As the afternoon turned cold, I headed back to the hotel for a nap, then had dinner at a local restaurant. Walking back to the hotel I met a Kurd named Ahmed who works a 24-hour cafe. The cafe is right at the end of a street leading to the Blue Mosque. It's spectacular at night and he was able to translate the big sign out front for me: Insan fanı vakif ebedi, which roughly means "People may die, but piety is eternal." Nice guy who wanted to practice his English. And tomorrow, the tours!

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Made it to Istanbul...

From Houston to Paris to Istanbul, overall it was an uneventful trip. I didn't have much time to look around at Charles de Gaulle; had to hurry on over to the next plane. I'll write more later; I want to explore a little while there is daylight.

Here's the more I promised:

The flight over was on Air France. Flying as I was to and from Paris on Air France, of course you see a lot of French people. They have a reputation for being snobs, I know, but they are absolutely the most beautiful people on Earth. Anywhere in the world I can pick out the French people. They are the best examples of grace and poise I could ever name. Now about the plane food -- the red wine was fresh (2003!) and served chilled and the Coke Light (That's French for "Diet Coke") was warm. Merde!

Attack of the babushkas: Coming in I had to wait in a long line at customs. While we were waiting there was a huge group of old women who arrived. Think babushka and you're not far from wrong -- a pack of ladies in scarves and bedsheets, peering out at you over thin glasses and never, ever smiling. None of them were over 5' 4". They swarmed around us and as the line crept forward they quietly surrounded us on both sides, standing alongside us instead of behind us, as if they could slip to the front of the line unnoticed. They were pressing up against us so much that for a large part of the time I could feel someone pressed against my back. One of them spoke to me. I don't know for sure but it sounded like babushka for "Respect your elders and be a good sport. Let me in front of you." I told her I didn't understand and ignored her. Didn't let her cut, either! After that she mumbled something else that sounded like babushka for "Screw you then, you son of a Greek dishwasher!"

The Hotel: I am staying at the Poem Hotel. The room is large enough to accomodate two twin beds and a suitcase. The hotel is about four stories high and you can go on the roof for a nice view of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. I would send out pictures but this computer has Windows 98 and I can't upload off the camera without installing drivers. Typing on a Turkish keyboard is a pain... so many letters have been moved to make room for letters like ı (undotted i) and letters for words like üç, şiş kebap, or Beyoğlu. To type an @ I have to hit Right-Alt Q. Of course the operating system is a localized Turkish version. I have learned the word for Back in Turkish is Geri and Start is Başlat. Pity me!

The landmarks I have seen are so much more impressive when you see them for real instead of in pictures. They have a quiet and stately majesty. I haven't been inside any of them yet; I signed up for all-day tours Tuesday and Wednesday. Not tomorrow because some of the sites are inexplicably closed on Monday. I am staying in an old part of town called Sultanhamet. The streets are narrow and the shops are geared for tourists; many of the signs are in English. They all sell the same stuff: backgammon sets, water pipes, coffee pots, and carpets, carpets, carpets. I am within a ten minute walk of all the main attractions.

The people are friendly, but anyone who has been to Turkey knows about the sales people in the shops and how pushy they are. "My friend, hello. Do you need a rug?" No. "Then let me ask you one question: where are you from?" Texas. That was one question. Bye now! Normally when I travel I use Greek to ward off sales people. "Δεν καταλαβαίνω; μιλάτε ελληνικά?" But you know, the Turks and Greeks don't seem to get along too well, so I'm not using it. So far no one has reacted negatively to my saying I'm from the US. No one has even asked me about world events, my political views, nothing.

The food is wonderful; for dinner I had apple tea and İskander kebaps. I can foresee being sick of kebaps by Thursday, though! I tried rakı, the Turkish aniseed drink that is basically ouzo with a Turkish name. I couldn't finish it; it tasted like Milk of Magnesia.

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Raison d'etre

People concerned about my trip to Turkey and Syria can come here for status updates. I'll write as I have opportunity, but I have no idea how often that will be!