Tuesday, August 20, 2013

take a chance

A secret of the successful traveler is to always go with the flow, and to be open to twists of fate. A chance meeting with a random person can drastically change the course of events, and alter your plans in ways that you cannot imagine.

On my first solo venture to the Middle-east 2 years ago, I met an Aussie girl on my first night at the 3-dollar hostel I was staying at in downtown Cairo. Her name was Maria, and whether it was due to a lack of other travelers around at the time (smack-dab-in the middle of the so-called 'Arab Spring), or owing to some shared comraderie of the grotesque subtle sexual harassment of Egyptian men, we bonded instantly and became travelmates, meeting again later on in Jordan. There we spent 2 weeks together camping with the Bedouin (aka nearly getting kidnapped by the Bedouin), getting lost in Petra, eating a lot of street Falafel, singing along to songs with "Habbibi" in the chorus, and exploring every corner of every single mall in Amman, as we somehow spent way too long holed up in the capital, with her acting as protective sister when I would inevitably accept random invitations for tea from attractive Jordanian dudes on the street. Even though it has been 2 years now since we last saw each other, we still stay in touch, and I know that should our paths ever cross again, we will reunite with a hug and a laugh, as though we had never said goodbye that day I got into my Taxi headed for Damascus. Had she not been open to my brilliant suggestions of couchsurfing with the Bedouin (slight sarcasm), or stuck to her original plan of staying longer in Israel, we might never have had the riotous time we did. Had I not been open to having someone join me for my desert misadventures, I might have had much less fun (in fact, the prospect of that whole Bedouin lark as a solo female, becomes more frightening than harmless absurdity, when you figure most nights involved sleeping on a rock in the middle of nowhere, with a group of Arab desert men - I know, I know, the situations I find myself in!!). She was the first person to really teach me the beauty of traveling without a fixed plan or a guidebook - no plan means you are open to anything, and all the rich experience that the chaos of travel provides you.

The same could be said of my chance meeting with the semi-senior citizen Italian brigade in Ethiopia. One obscenely early morning in Addis Ababa, while milling about in the dark outside the bus station waiting to head to the North, I spotted what appeared to be an actual middle-aged tourist, also standing awkwardly and on guard against thieves, stray dogs and persistent touts. I immediately said hello, in a rather in-your-face manner (which turned out to be fine, seeing as he was Italian), introducing myself, revealing important info (Julia, from Canada, going to Bahir Dar, would you like to sit with me please and maybe ensure I don't get robbed?), but alas he was booked on another bus -going to the same place however. When I later saw him and his other 2 Italian travelmates at one of the few "rest stops" along the way, I began again the conversing, they bought me a coffee, and it was decided that I would stay in the same crap hotel as them in once we reached our destination. I ended up basically tagging along with them for most of my Ethiopia trip, taking flights together, eating endless plates of "fish goulash" (I have no idea what this is or why its so prevalent in Ethiopia but it was a reliable choice ), even convincing one of them in the end to join me for the Harar adventure in the East, to watch me feed a Hyena and recite Rimbaud to myself. To this day my friend Cesar sends me the occasional hilarious email from Italy, with questions on my whereabouts, jokes about the time he took me to the doctor in downtown Addis for a malaria test, and general banter about life.

In the same vein, when something unlikely happens allowing you to carry on in one direction, you ought to briskly take that exit and forge a new path even if it means coming up with a half-fhazard plan- and quickly. Such was the case when I managed to snag an Iranian visa in Lebanon this past spring. I applied on a whim, unsure of my next move - and because of this decision to just try and get the visa, without even knowing the cost of a flight from Beirut to Iran or without any sort of guidebook, I ended up spending nearly 2 months in that country and having what can only be described as "the experience of a lifetime".

Now I find myself having been told I have to move out of my beloved Istanbul Ghetto villa within a month, and also the serendipity of this coinciding with some relatively cheap flights back to Canada, as well as the Halloween season. (Yes, Halloween in Canada is an actual incentive for me to come home. As well as the general autumn vibe. My favourite time of year in Calgary, with or without the Starbucks pumpkin spice lattes). My job here, and the fact I am yet again, sick with a cold due to the germy hands of 3 year olds, is wearing rather thin. The "rough Istanbul week" has turned more into a general observation that I am not meant to live long term in a place so at odds with my feminist opinions (or lack of cheddar cheese). I want to see my friends and family again. I want to have my OWN apartment again, and hang up all my wonderful worldly relics I have collected in all these trips on the walls, and go to the library and sign out books on these places and daydream about traveling from the comfort of home. I want to eat bacon, regularly. I want to hear English being spoken around me again. I want to feel connected to the people around me, not be the token yabangee who gets laughed at when she tries to speak Turkish.

I also want to visit Israel before I come home, to complete this 2 year long on/off journey of the Middle east, as well as finish off my passport which has only one blank page left in it. I need to see where Jesus was born, and where he was crucified, and I really don't think anyone can argue that this is important. Traveling and living in Muslim places has been amazing and taught me many things, but the conclusion I have come to is that while I may not be a practising Christian, as such, and Catholicism may have a lot of crap to answer for (though the new pope seems kind of groovy) Christianity, as it is practised by the minorities in the "east", kind of rules. The Christian quarters of any Middle eastern city is where you can buy alcohol and not worry about wearing a headscarf, or being stared at. The existence of Syriac/Armenian/Greek Christian minorities in places like Syria, Israel and Lebanon has kept a sort of balance and moderation for years over countries that might well have become extremist otherwise (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iran yadda ya). Its funny that so many people think of Christianity as a western religion and Islam as eastern - they come from the exact same place. And Jerusalem is the heart of it. Not to mention the whole Jewish angle, which I havent yet really experienced anywhere. I think seeing there will be the final chapter in what has been an incredible quasi-spiritual journey.

The fact that a return flight from Istanbul to Tel Aviv can be had in early October for less than 200 dollars, as well as the fact I wont have a place to live around then (save for Emily's couch, thank you Emily!), and all the rest of things conspiring in my favour to go back to Canada, leads me to believe that this is yet another one of fates chance happenings, opening the door to go this way.  The door back home.

Me and Maria, brought together by fate, stuck in the  Jordanian desert for 5 days.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Notes from the edge

This has been, as my flat-mate (and dear friend) Emily would say, a rather "rough Istanbul week".
Maybe it's the incessant heat, the constant sticky feeling on my shoulders, the dizzying hot air just finally getting on my frazzled sunburnt nerves. Maybe it's the post Ramadan blues - also known as the week that every black niqab-ed Saudi Arabian woman and her 5 children come to Istanbul to celebrate and stroll Istiklal Street with their unfairly attired jeans-and-t-shirt-wearing husbands; I observed such a scene yesterday at the Starbucks, and couldn't help but gaze at the woman taking sips of her Frappuccino (they do have to lift the veil to do this, and it's definitely not polite to sneak a peek, but Istanbul is a place where ones manners sort of take a walk out the back door after your first month of living here). Maybe it's working with children every day and the subsequent exhaustion or maybe it's the bottle kids on my street who like to burn things and shoot toy guns. Maybe it's money being tight because people do not like to keep up with their English lessons during Ramadan. Maybe it's post traumatic stress from seeing that goat get his head cut off onto the dirty sidewalk. Maybe I've just been in the middle east too long and am losing patience trying to be politically correct and tolerant of every subtle and not-so-subtle misogynistic comment and situation that I observe and endure 

The Dog days in Tarlabasi take on a whole new meaning when the place is over-run with motley looking street dogs; their fur that indecipherable shade of smoky beige that Orhan Pamuk wrote was in itself the essence of Huzun (the melancholia of Istanbul). Not to be outdone, it is worth mentioning the other canines with their tongue hanging out; Istanbul's infamous creepy men whose demeanor could only politely be called similar to that of a dogs - and a particularly unrefined street mutts, at that. 

It is rather convenient that of the rudimentary Turkish that I have learned thus far, simple words used often in teaching at my preschool job ("Otur" = Sit, "Yapma" = don't do that, and "Kopek" = dog), are also useful and applicable when confronted by the aformentioned rude males. I do not wish to generalize or give a sweeping misconception of Turkey, as I know several very decent, honest and respectful Turkish men -but they are not the type to be found sitting on my ghettos street corners smoking and drinking tea all day long, loitering in front of Beyoglus hammams and shops, or cruising the tourist areas on saturday nights, which, realistically are the places where I do tend to spend the majority of my time. I am not a misandrist or man hater - just someone who attempts to paint an honest portrait.

I live in a low-income area where men simply are not used to seeing free and uncovered women (except the few English Teacher foreigners who live here for the cheap rent, "authentic atmosphere" and quality produce markets), so perhaps to some extent the continual stares are understandable; even a pagan gypsy covers her head with a scarf, after all. I might be persuaded to make this concession myself (I do have quite the scarf collection after all), but it is simply too damn hot outside, and when I pound the pavement at 8 am walking to work, I cannot be bothered to wear anything besides my short shorts and tanktops. More irritating are the general creeps lurking on Istiklal every other evening, who certainly give the appearance of being somewhat more westernized (given the way modern Turkish women dress and their own diesel jeans and sneakers), yet are likely to give themselves a severe case of whiplash due to repeated neck over-extensions to catch a glimpse of every and any skin-showing passing female.

Maybe it's just the chaos and crowds; I myself am living in a 3 bedroom apartment with 4 recent Syrian refugees (and my marvelous fellow Canadian Emily, though she will be tragically leaving at the end of the month to recluse herself in Osmanbey in her own private apartment - just kidding. I'm jealous.). It would be entirely inappropriate to complain about the fact that the bedroom next to me now holds twice as many men as when I first moved in (that's 4 men, in case I didnt mention that), given the fact they are escaping Civil War in their country and I am merely irritated at the kitchen constantly being occupied, or the additional fact that they insist upon cooking liver every other day. How they all manage to sleep in one small room is astounding, and of course I ought not to complain because they are considerate and decent guys. I really ought not to complain. I am not. Complaining.

Istanbul is beautiful, Istanbul is the still the world's greatest city; these are things I tell myself when nearing the precarious un-fenced edge of some sort of nervous breakdown. Even though much of my love for Istanbul is in the bricks and old buildings and abandoned alleys and wooden houses about to slip away into dust; in the street cats who sleep in between second hand flea-market finery on the sidewalk near my house; in the fact that even when a gross man stares at me, I find myself endeared by the fact he can barely fit on the tiny stool beneath him, or the fact his mustache looks like that of an Ottoman Janissary. My love for Istanbul is not so much about the reality of day-to-day living here, but in the magical little tiny blink-and-you'll-miss-them threads that tie the past and the present together in a web of confusion and artistically gratifying chaos. This is a city of ruins, of little artifacts of its former glory found amongst the trash heap, and even though reality can be ugly at times, I am, for better or worse, someone who lives more by romantic ideals, charmed illusions and artistic inspiration, than I do by any sense of practicality.

I have made the joke that perhaps I am entirely out of touch and that one day I'm going to slip completely over the edge and be found down in Eminonu's seedy docks and backstreets, laying on the cobble stones, sheesha waterpipe in hand, wearing a Turban and genie pants yelling loudly, "God bless Constantinople!!" 
Despite that humourous image, for now I am writing this post in an attempt to exorcize the demons of frustration, (rather than jump over that edge), and find black humour in what HAS indeed been a "rough Istanbul week". 

The Waterpipe is always a good idea though. 

One of many, in my Istanbul cartoon series