Thursday, May 6, 2010

Istanbul

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I think there was this moment right as we got off the bus in Istanbul where the pendulum of culture shock swung from one extreme to another with blinding, befuddling speed.

After having been ushered off the bus into the terminal, the crew unloaded everyone's luggage except ours. People started walking away and we stood there looking around. Finally a crew member started to explain to us as best he could that we would catch some kind of shuttle bus. We tried to tell them that no, we didn't need a shuttle, we would just like to get our luggage and a taxi. This didn't translate, and I think they must have assumed if they just ignored us and went ahead with their shuttle bus plan we would go along with it. Clearly they don't know loudmouthed Americans very well, because as the bus started pulling away without us, my parents and I all simultaneously started yelling at the top of our lungs and running after it, banging on the side and the windows. With a look somewhere between bewilderment and disgust, the driver stopped the bus and unloaded our luggage.

Feeling sheepish but irritated at having made a gigantic spectacle of ourselves, we walked out onto the curb and my Dad immediately flagged down the nastiest gypsy cab we saw. An ancient, creaking rusty car of indeterminate eastern-European origin, the toothless driver of similar vintage. Watching him drive, it was clear the gearbox was at this point probably not much more than metallic good-intentions. The floor mats were made of yesterday's newspaper. As we pulled up to our hotel the inside door handle fell off in my Mom's hand. It was, well, authentic. And, the security guard at our very nice hotel looked at us getting out of this cab with an expression that suggested we should probably be decontaminated before he let us in.

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Unlike other places I've been thus far, there was real and pressing business in Istanbul. My parents, as part of the planning process, put the word out among some of their international contacts that they would be in the area and wanted to put together a seminar. My father can be best described professionally as a fiber-optics rockstar. You know, those cables that use flexible glass fibers instead of wire because light travels, like, fucking fast. Well my parents have been in the business for so long and my dad has been educating and evangelizing such that he can now pretty much just show up somewhere and people will travel long distances to hear him speak.

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I, on the other hand, had made arrangements a few months in advance to pick up my visa to Iran. This process has been so involved and fraught that I wondered if it ever would really happen. If at some point along the way it had stalled or fallen apart, I would have been completely and utterly unsurprised. But step by complicated step, I'd gotten to the point where I would be walking into the Iranian consulate with paperwork in hand and get that magical stamp on my visa.

This is what I should have done first thing, that day, the minute I got off the bus. But as is my wont, I procrastinated. We did some touristy stuff, seeing the famous Blue Mosque and the catacombs and the Grand Bazaar (by Grand they mean holy shit gigantic) and just exploring the city a little. Istanbul is both incredibly walk-able and incredibly tourist friendly. Again, I think there was a misplaced expectation of a bustling, intimidatingly disorganized metropolis filled with people yelling at each other and goats running through the streets. Rather, it's a laid-back city with a European vibe and by far the cleanest streets I've ever seen. (For real. It makes Los Angeles look like the Wall-E garbage planet.)

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It wasn't until the second day, while my parents were schmoozing with the captains of industry, that I walked down to the consulate and handed in my papers. At this point it started seeming like an elaborate political scavenger hunt. Go make copies of this, bring a photo of that, go to the bank and give them this. By the way - it's good to be a consulate, they're open 9-11 Monday-Thursday. What a pain in the ass. While I was busy running around collecting all the details, they closed.

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That night I responded to the ubiquitous couchsurfing "I'm in town, let's get a drink" post and a few ex-pats and I went out for some beers on the main pedestrian drag. (Imagine, if you know it, the 3rd street promenade - about a mile and a half of it.) The strategy seems to be to just walk down the street and as the various waiters shout at you to come into their bars, you can play them off each other to drive down the price of a watered-down pint of local beer ("Efes" - tagline: "you can't buy anything else! Sucker!")

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This turned into a random side conversation with some locals (three guys, a boss and two employees, one of whom made it clear they were getting drunk the boss’s dime) who after a while insisted that we should go to a club with them. The club was actually a rooftop, with a spectacular view and some suit-wearing traditional Turkish musicians interspersed for no particular reason with a Latin DJ. We all got crazy on the dance floor - by now I have some enviable middle-eastern dance moves, don't think I don't. I had a really odd conversation with a girl from Los Angeles at a conference for "panoramic painting" who soberly and without irony agreed with my assessment that it was a weirdly, amusingly specific that ought to be laughed at. When I thought back, the next morning, I realized she was stoned out of her mind and that explains the serene, compliant answers.

I closed the place down.

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The next morning, I woke up lazily and we all went for a long, slow breakfast. We walked from the restaurant back to the consulate, where I found out I had more pieces of the scavenger hunt to gather. I looked at the time - 10:45, I had fifteen minutes before they closed AGAIN. I did some quick math and realized that if I didn't get it in that day, given the 24-hour turnaround they quoted me, I would miss my flight to Cairo that sunday. FUCK.

But I got it in, just.

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Moral of the story: do not fuck around with consulates. Not ever. Get it done FIRST and EARLY.

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Having that big yellow sticker in my passport made everything alright again. So the next few days were a breezy and enjoyable experience. I got the world's most ridiculous haircut. I bought a new, shittier backpack. We ate fish sandwiches off a boat and an expensive but fantastic meal under a bridge. Tourist stuff: a cruise on the Bosphorus, Aya Sofia (which seems to be... some kind of extra giant mosque?), Top Kopi palace.

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About that: So in the palace, not listed on any tourist materials whatsoever, they have what they claim to be the prophet Mohammed's bread and tooth.  Also, something they claim to be the "rod of Moses" from 1500 BC. Wait, what? Hold the phone. His beard? A 3500 year old stick? Are you kidding?

I've asked several people about this now and the broad consensus seems to be that nobody believe they're actually real. But I assure you they're presented as such, without any kind of discussion of authenticity.

There's something deeper here, above my pay grade, about the difference between Catholics and Muslims. I mean, we built cathedrals around the alleged finger bone of some-or-other saint. We go nuts for the image of Jesus in a water stain. No one seems that awfully impressed. Real or not, they practically put it in a closet.

One other highlight: at the Archaeology museum, we found a display of unearthed gravestones. On tiny signs next to them they had made translations. We may go to hell, but some of them were eye-wateringly funny. “She lived an inoffensive life and didn’t hurt anyone.” “I paid xxx dollars for this grave.” “Anyone caught robbing this grave will be fined.”

But the most moving, sincerely heart-felt inscription was a tomb that had been lovingly carved for a man’s best friend, his dog.

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And then, in the final evening before my parents would fly home, we sat on the palace lawn and shared a few drinks, watching the sun dip low. It was such a satisfying and comfortable moment, feeling all the concern and love of parents and the camaraderie of real friendship with people you respect and like.

I saw her, then. I don't want to write about this, but it stuck out so sharply and with such clarity in that moment that it feels dishonest not to. From a distance, it was the perfect ghost of her - the person that in so many ways set me down this path - as a child. All full of grace and energy, the short black hair fluttering in the wind as her mother took photo after photo. This child soaking in all the attention the world could give her. It was like seeing a window back in time to a moment of innocence and hope. This is what I had seen of her all along, an essence of uncorrupted things. A childish kind of hope - I fell in love with it, even though by the time I arrived it was long gone.

That moment settled on me like a dense fog rolling in off the water. It was a silent and small expression of forgiveness, and a goodbye. She wouldn’t trouble my thoughts again in the weeks that followed.

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So in the morning I packed up my newer, shittier bag and took the train to stay in a hostel for my first time. Ten euros a night doesn't go far in this town, tell you what. But it was saturday and I made the most of it. In the morning, I had a hungover flight well and truely off the deep end: to Cairo.

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Some Changes

I’ll be the first to tell you that up until now I haven’t been backpacking as much as using an impractical suitcase. This was intentional, being completely aware of my own ignorance how to travel minimally and on a shoestring. Since my parents would be meeting me in Turkey and then leaving back to California afterwards, I had a window of opportunity to swap gear around.

With that in mind, I sent back almost half of the stuff I was carrying, most of which I hadn’t touched. Lesson learned. My dad also very generously let me swap my full-size DSLR with his very compact and cool 3/4 olympus.

Also, and most daringly (stupidly?) sent home my backpack and bought a new one for $7 at the Grand Baazar in Istanbul. It looks and feels every bit as cheap as it was and I don’t expect it to last more than a month or two. When I see a better one I’ll buy it.

On a philosophical level, this is inching closer to my hopes and expectations of how this trip should go – freedom from material things and unburdened (literally and figuratively) by consumption.

My parents and I, a few nights in a row, sat in a restaurant on the main hostel street in Istanbul watching people walking in off buses and taxis carrying what must have been 60-70 pounds worth of stuff, probably 4 or 5 times what I have now. Usually they had two backpacks, one giant on the back and another on the stomach, both filled. I can’t imagine what you would need so badly and couldn’t buy.

I won’t look down on how other people travel, whatever works for you or makes you happy is fine. But for me, if I could get by with a toothbrush, a passport and an ATM card, I would.

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Turkey, the Southern Aegean Coast

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In the Summer before I turned 18 I lived in Japan for a few months, with a family of 5, all boys 9-13 years old, in a one-bedroom apartment. This was Kumamoto, a province far to the south, a different island from Tokyo and different in more ways than I have room for here. Perhaps another time I'll write about this experience, but I bring it up because it was, and this is the only word I can think to use, a magical place in such a rare and special way that only a few other times in my life I've felt.

My American peers and I, language students, were virtually the only foreigners we ever saw. The isolation was brutal, especially when, a week in, I developed a lung infection and saw a fever of 105. The temptation to pack it in and go home ran high and my phone bills were well into triple digits. But one by one, each of us fell in love with the rolling hills, the lush, unspoiled greenery, the ancient traditions without irony and pretense. Climb a mountain, and a weathered sign at the top would unceremoniously list people's names that had climbed the mountain every day their whole lives, five thousand, ten thousand times. There were no theme parks, no gift shops, just a simple country life stretching back generations.

The only word I can use is haunted, in the way that the hair stands up on the back of your neck when you stop and touch a piece of stone that almost seems to buzz at all the hands that touched it before. I don't mean, of course, to imply anything metaphysical, but some places and things are just brimming with so many stories and lives that it overwhelms belief.

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My parents and I took an early flight from London to Istanbul on a very modern, giant 777. On the way I watched a movie called "The Invention of Lying" with Ricky Gervais that was so incredibly funny and true and sad that I spent the next few days referencing it in conversation what felt like every ten or fifteen minutes. The food: decent.

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When we arrived in turkey the staff of the airline made it seem so deadly urgent that we follow them around the airport that it spooked my parents and I badly enough to stand around in a circle at the connecting gate and stare at each other like we may be arrested and shot at any time. This was, in retrospect, ridiculous. In Izmir, a man picked us up at the curb and then drove us to our hotel 2 hours away like the back of his minivan was on fire.

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Kusadasi (my keyboard lacks the necessary squiggly lines) is basically a cruise-ship port. During the tourist season, it must fill to the brim with seafaring russian and japanese tourists, but in the off season it was a sleepy town.

We made one crucial mistake that first night: we walked down to the first restaurant at the end of the block from our hotel and ordered some random food. It turned out to be the most popular place with the locals and was spectacular. Fresh fish, caught the same day, presented like a work of art and cooked to order. Fresh salads and bread. Good local wine. Raki, a very strong local liqour so strong that it needs to be cut with water, which renders it a milky white.

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This mistake would become clear as the next day we were swept up into a vast and well-oiled machine of the local tourist industry. Bus drivers and tour guides and hotel works workers in a perfect waltz of hustling Americans from one site to another, stopping off at dreadful buffets serving giant tubs of bland caricatures of local food. Explanations of these sites were recited verbose from some tour-guide manual (in some cases literally read verbatim off english signs in front of us) and were basically the extent of their english skills - questions were often ignored completely.

I don't mean this in a bad-review-on-trip-advisor kind of way, it was all basically what we expected from a budget tour package and much more a source of amusement than anything else. We gritted our teeth and went along with the tour-bus. Nothing, nothing, nothing could blunt how spectacular these sites were.

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These arrangements got made largely without my input, as history is a big interest of my parents' and I was happy to leave the planning to them. With the help of a travel agent, my Dad more or less picked out a handful of sites, Greek and Roman ruins mostly and the travel agent crafted an itinerary. By and large, these were commonly visited sites, so we ended up on a group tour.

But on the third day, some glitch in the tourist equation sent us off on our own, on a grueling 3 hour minivan ride with our own guide. We were bound for Aphrdesias, far inland from the other sites and much more remote. When we arrived, we were literally the only tourists there, but the place teemed with Turkish schoolchildren and local politicians. We had somehow stumbled onto a festival of some kind - ironically, we would find out later, celebrating tourism. Old ladies were baking bread on the lawn for lunch and kids ran around wearing fez with painted-on moustaches.

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I felt it again then, for the first of a few times, walking around those ruins. Haunted, by pleasant ghosts. Maybe it was the remoteness, the isolation, but to see these stones carved so meticulously by a faceless person two thousand years before and then dug up and set on the ground where they once stood was nothing less than spooky. Water had seeped in, cracked the marble. Time had wiped the faces from carved figures. Things have changed: even the sea is gone. But these stones are still alive. It stirred something deep.

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All of these places did, in their own way.

In Pergamon, the city on top of the mountain, ruins that overlook a modern city sharing it's name, we listened to the minarets call to prayer from an ancient theater.

In Miletus, we walked through a field of red poppies and across the unearthed foundations to see a reflection of some columns in a pool.

At the temple of Apollo, the columns were bigger than two people could fit their arms around and a hundred feet tall. In Troy, they dug into the earth and showed us where thirteen different cities were built, one on top of another. Whether or not Achilles and Hector fought and died here, a few hundred-thousand others lived and died here. The numbers are easily said but stand in that place and touch the walls and tell me you don't the weight of all that history.

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Every time we thought we would be completely sick and tired of looking at old stones in piles, this place would shock us.

And after a few days, we were sorry to go. Not sorry for the mediocre food, or the bedgrudging tour guides or the chatter of fellow tourists, but sorry to leave the atmosphere of the country.

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Story time: friday night I was bound and determined to find somewhere to go out and interact with the natives, so to speak. There turned out to be only one bar open and lively so I talked my way in and got a beer ("Efes", the only beer in Turkey, which comes in "dark", "light" and "in a larger bottle.") A veteran, at this point, at walking into bars along where I don't know anyone, I just sat and watched the crowd. A couple awful DJs were spinning a pretty typical set: hip hop, when all the guys would dance with each other and the girls would ignore them, and Turkish music, when everyone in the entire postal code would mob the dance floor. I ended up making friends with the promoter and his 5 roommates, who knew basically everyone there. I think they were a little miffed at how much I could drink and still be relatively sober.

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Observation apropos of nothing: Turkish people are the most even-tempered, drama free, reasonable people I've ever met. Serious, hard-working, dependable and utterly unflappable. I had no idea, especially given their proximity to, oh I don't know, Greece? Afghanistan?

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London

I left Miami in a daze, a fog of too much alcohol and too little sleep. As in New York, I brought with me a debt of six years of beautiful California weather - the rain and the bitter, cold wind. It would, of course, later follow me to Amsterdam, but I owe an apology to all Londoners for that first week. But still, it was a good feeling to leave the comfort of the States.

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London made the list immediately for a few reasons. Of course, to get to know the city. I like to do that - just go to a city and feel it's pulse, slowly and steadily aquaint myself with its geography and people. Get a taste of life there and see how it agrees with me.

I also had every good intention when I started the trip to think about work and talk to companies on the way. As I got further along in the planning process it became clear that people from larger companies would be less than excited to talk with me if I had no particular idea when I would be interested in working - since I don't.

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But if I'm honest, I really just wanted to come have a good time in a big city with my friend Chris.

Think of every cliche about time and how it just slips past us, since we met first on Ghost Rider, a full four years ago and change. At that time, I was working a brutal 'morning' shift in a different department, starting at four in the morning and ending at two in the afternoon or later (so I saw very little of anybody.) We both transitioned onto Spider-Man 3 a few months later, and I moved over to a swing shift that allowed me to see a little more daylight (though of course I still never left work.)

Around the same time, for a variety of reasons, I moved from funky, bohemian Venice to posh, old-money Santa Monica. Chris and I had had some limited interaction at work, but really barely knew one another. A few weeks after moving we ran into each other in the liquor store on the corner of my street. As it turned out, it was our street - he lived less than half a block away.

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So then, I took the plane to the train to the tube to a pub, and then I was in London. Catching up on the last few weeks over a pint. London is a beer town - mixed drinks are expensive and weak. Well, everything is expensive, but beer is at least more reliable effective. It's a very different rhythm, people go out and drink very early and go home very early. At 6pm bars are overflowing and then empty by midnight.

Say what you will - the Brits make good use of their time. We saw one woman so drunk she tripped and broke the glass she was holding, then kept drinking out of it.

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One drawback I didn't consider - when you're travelling for so long, there is no downtime, no recovery period. No boring tuesday nights when you make hot pockets, do some laundry and watch nonsensical Lost reruns. That first week in London I was so wrecked from Miami that trudging out in the cold and the rain was a tall order indeed. I did my touristic duty, though, visiting museums and Big Ben and Picadilly Square and Trafalgar Square.

One day I had so little motivation that I contacted some local couchsurfing people and just sat in a pub drinking all day and night. This is known to insiders as the 'Columbian incident.'

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There were some low points. London is a working city, and very little goes on before sundown. I would have several days in a row where I wouldn't talk to anyone in the daylight hours. Wandering without aim in a city filled with purposeful people can make you feel ghostly, anonymous. I felt a little homesick, a little lonely, a little stupidly sorry for myself. I would wander into an internet cafe and write long, melancholic letters to friends at home.

I spent a lot, too much, time thinking about the chain of events that got me here, with no comfortable answers.

When I started getting frustrated at how down on myself I was being, I took a bus over to the British War Museum and walked through the exhibit about the holocaust. It didn’t exactly cheer me up, but, well, it did something.

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But Chris and I found plenty of goofy shit to distract ourselves in the evenings. One night we took the tube out to a bar that was holding a 'pub quiz.' This was a staple of 10th Street Santa Monica life, 'bar trivia' at our local, grungy watering hole. Despite our general ineptitude at retaining random factoids from popular culture, we always did pretty good. This time, dead last by a mile. To be fair, we made it clear to everyone we were Americans, which was to excuse our complete ignorance of anything British and maybe our general stupidity. The last laugh was ours, though. We drank all the other teams under the table.

Chris, by the way, deserves a medal for letting me sleep on the floor of his room in the flat he shares in Islington for almost two weeks. I snore.

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And so it went. But in a general kind of way, I didn't fall in love with London in the same way I did with New York nor did the novelty wear thin quickly like Miami. I was reminded in so many ways of Los Angeles, really - a frankly quite ugly city that offers everything in the world at your fingertips if you can spare the money and the patience. It's not a romantic city and as a tourist I found their historical narrative murky and perhaps a little inauthentic. Like, nice giant clock guys.

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But after two weeks I knew. In the same way that Los Angeles and I are inextricably linked, I knew I would be back to London. For someone like me, it's an elephant in the room during any discussion about my business and my nebulous plans for the future. Much more so than anywhere else I've been or will go during this trip.

So, this unfinished story will end here.

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