Wide Awake in Wonderland

We’re only dancing on this earth for a short while

Forget running. I think we should consider building an Ark. October 26, 2008

Before the race with my running partner. You can see that I am already DRENCHED.

Before the race with my running partner. We hadn't even started, and you can see that I am already DRENCHED.

I didn’t sleep very well last night. It sounded like someone had turned a hose – a fire hose – on the hostel room window. I kept having, “Look! It’s the sun!” dreams to counteract it, but every time I woke up, the torrential rains seemed worse. It was practically Biblical in proportion. If it starts raining locusts or blood tomorrow, I won’t be terribly surprised.

Thus, sleep deprived and somewhat dreading what was no doubt going to be an outrageously wet morning, I got up at 6:30 a.m. and suited up – as best I could – for the run. It is safe to say that I was tragically unprepared. In order to face a long run in 12C/58F degree weather, I had:

  • Running Shorts

  • Short-sleeve t-shirt

  • Jog bra

  • Baseball cap

  • Socks

  • Running shoes

That’s it. That was the complete and total assembled wardrobe and I was drenched to the BONE within minutes. I think we can all consider ourselves lucky that this post isn’t coming to you from a Turkish hospital where I am being treated for hypothermia.

God bless ’em, but Turkey is wildly disorganized. At least they seem to know it. We were required to board the buses by 7:30 a.m, and they arrived at starting point of the race within ten minutes. Thus, we pulled onto the side of the road and sat there for over an hour – nothing like giving yourself a nice wide berth for unplanned mistakes and unintended consequences. As someone who attracts chaos and confusion wherever I go, I can appreciate this.

Faux race simulation for your benefit. I didnt want to risk ruining the camera by bringing it with me in the torrential rains.

Faux race simulation for your benefit. I didn't want to risk ruining the camera by bringing it with me in the torrential rains.

As we sat on the bus, I surveyed the Noah-esque scene outside. For a brief period, there was a glimmer of sun in the distance, and I felt a rising confidence that my dream had been a premonition. Sadly, my hopes were dashed when the clouds closed and the rains beat down even more furiously than before. For a while, there was even lightening.

Despite it all, the race began at 9:00 a.m. with zero fan fare. I heard a car backfire a few miles away (or perhaps that was the sound of a water-soaked starter pistol?) and the traditional ‘slow trot’ that marks every race on earth began. Istanbul is on both Asia and Europe, and the marathon’s ‘claim to fame’ (which is a bit of a stretch) is that you can run from one continent to the other. Specifically, that entails starting on Asia side, crossing three bridges, and ending by the Blue Mosque on the European side of the city.

Meanwhile, I’m not a super-seasoned competitive runner, but I have done a half-dozen or so in the States. There, crowds show, bands play, people cheer, and there’s an energy and a vibe that gets you fired up and keeps you moving. In comparison, the Istanbul Marathon was like a trip to the morgue. At one point, I ran in total silence for half an hour. I got so lost in thought that I almost crashed into some pedestrians who were wandering across the barricaded street in no particular hurry to get out of my or my fellow runners’ ways. The Turkish are like the wild turkeys we have at home – in the street and not really interested in your opinion of that.

As for the marathon itself, it could be the rain, but I doubt it. To be frank, there is no vibe, no energy, and no scene. No one showed up. No bands. No music. No giving a sh*t. At the most, people looked on confused or even annoyed at these two thousand or so individuals running in the pouring, driving, freezing rain. I thought we deserved a “Boorah” or maybe an appreciative whistle or something just for being insane enough to persist in this weather…but nothing. Even the WINNERS got nothing. As the triumphant Kenyan crossed the finish line in what was probably Arctic weather to his African sensibilities, a couple people yelled “Bravo!” From that point on, I screamed like mad for all the people in the final chute of the complete marathon.

With respect to the ridiculously relentless rain, I can count on one hand the times in my life I have been so cold. It was unreal. Just when you thought the wind and the water had to back off, it would get even worse. At one point a rain drop went directly into my ear canal and hurt for like an hour. The hair on my arms stood on end the entire time. Sometimes, the only sound I could hear was the “squish” of people’s shoes as we worked our way through the ankle-deep water backed up in the streets. Happily, my friend and I were wonderfully matched runners, and comfortably stayed together the entire time, occasionally moaning about how this had to be the single wettest run of our entire lives.

Otherwise, and to my own complete and total shock, I ran really well. I kept a good pace and was never tired. Only in the last couple kilometers did the cold get to my muscles, and I honestly felt like I could’ve gone at least 5KM further, maybe more. It kind of has me fired up to train for and do a full marathon. As for how I managed to muster this athletic prowess with virtually no preparation and my sporadic running schedule, it has to be carrying that damn backpack for three months. I can think of no other reason I was so strong.

And oddly enough, in many ways, the race was a fitting metaphor for this trip. As I was running up a hill near the end, I started giving myself the pep talk I’ve given so many times before, “You can do this. Just hang in there. You’re doing great. You’re tough. You’re all over this. You rock.” I realized I was pulling on many of the same physical and mental reserves I’ve used the whole time: Pushing yourself when you’re miserable, enjoying the moment and the wonderment of finding yourself in such a foreign and magical place even if it’s not quite going according to plan, stretching your physical and mental limits, and all the while discovering strength you never knew you had. Boorah!

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The weirdest bath you’ll ever take October 25, 2008

Fresh pomagranate juice is sold on all the streets of Istanbul

Fresh pomagranate juice is sold on all the streets of Istanbul

I’m uncomfortable with people handling my dirty laundry. This is a new neurosis, but as of this trip, I feel awkward about sticking someone with my stinky clothes and making it their problem to clean them. But in that case, at least the ‘dirty work’ occurs when I’m not there. In light of this strange hangup, you can only imagine how I feel about someone vigorously cleaning the resource that makes that laundry dirty – my body.

That’s what made my first true Turkish Turkish bath a bit off-putting. In Budapest, I went to the Rudas Baths in Pest. Once inside, an overly flirty Hungarian man pointed me toward a cubicle and explained I was to change into my bathing suit and take the key to the door with me (so that my belongings were secured while I was soaking). Then he offered to come in and help me change. He also set me up with a cubicle where the door wouldn’t stay closed, AND carried on in a manner overly reminiscent of ‘Wayne’s World’ about, “You are too good for me!” when I came out in my suit. Nothing like keeping it subtle.

After effectively evading the cubicle assistant, it’s off to the showers, and then the baths. At Rudas, there are five pools of varying temperatures – 23, 27, 32, 37, and 42, as well as a small cold dunk, a dry sauna, and a steam room.. At first I did the ‘gradually increase the temperature’ soaking series, but I eventually got hooked on going from the 42 degree tub and the cold dunk, or for even more of a thrill, between the 55 degree steam room and the cold dunk. The steam room was so hot that I couldn’t see, and it burned my eyes. I was glad I hadn’t worn my contacts (until I tripped and almost fell in the dry sauna) because I started to think they might have melted onto my eyeballs. Anyway, it was quite enjoyable, and I stayed there for several hours.

The Istanbul street dogs are very handsome, but their predicament makes me sad.

The Istanbul street dogs are very handsome, but their predicament makes me sad.

Last night, I was taken to a bath in Bodrum…but there was no soaking to be had. Rather, I was given a menu of options (soap, scrub and soap, or scrub, soap, and massage – kind of like a human car wash) and I decided to go for the whole enchilada. At the baths in Turkey, the men and the women are completely separate, and you’re expected to strip down naked. Then they give you what can only be described as a table cloth, and send you to the showers. I wandered around and saw some large women lying on a huge marble slab. It was a little mortuary-esque. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to see. Where were the baths? Unsure what to do with myself, I went and sat in the stinky sauna for a while. It wasn’t very hot, and it smelled like mildew, but what are you gonna do?

After a while in there, I went back out to the main room and studied the small sinks lining the walls, and then tried a couple doors that turned out to be locked. FINALLY a woman came in and said, “Lay down, Lady.” She was a larger girl in a bikini, and she pointed to the giant marble slab. She rinsed it off with water several times, and I laid down. The wrong way. I guess it just didn’t occur to me to put myself face down on a totally unforgiving surface. I attempted to arrange myself comfortably, and she put some kind of mitt on and began vigorously scrubbing me all over. A RIDICULOUS amount of skin was scrubbed off of me. A couple minutes into this disgusting spectacle I realized there is not enough money in the world to entice me to work as a scrubber. I resolved to leave her a very large tip.

Then I turned over, and she repeated the process on my front, my arms, and even my face. Then I was instructed to, “Get up, Lady” and she threw several bowls of water on me and the slab to clean it. Then I laid back down again, and she poured bowl after bowl of soapy water all over me and lathered me up. Every time she’d touch me, I’d slide about two feet on the slick marbl, and the whole thing seemed kind of ridiculous. I tried to maintain what I hoped was a pleasant, yet friendly look on my face, in lieu of the combination of self-conscious and slightly hysterical that I was feeling on the inside.

All clean now, I was sent back to the showers to wash my hair. The girl who did my scrubbing got into the stall next to me and cleaned up too. This might have been a nice gesture BEFORE my scrub, and I considered gesturing toward my armpits as if to say, “You might want to apply some special attention there?” My tablecloth was getting pretty wet by now, and another woman came and led me into a small room where all the female employees were watching a Turkish crime drama. I watched along with them, and tried to follow along despite not understanding a single word.

Finally, the commercials came on, and one of the girls said, “Come, Lady.” She led me up to a room with a proper massage table and oiled me within an inch of my life. It was a short, but extremely vigorous rub down, which made me realize I have been living in denial about the toll that bag takes on my body. It occurs to me to add that if you are uncomfortable with full nudity or have a strong streak of modesty, the Turkish Baths are NOT for you. I grew up swimming and naked in front of strangers in the locker room on a daily basis, but even I felt a little self-conscious. Particularly during the part where she was massaging my stomach while standing above my head, and more or less smothered me with her bikini-clad boobs. Too bad I’m not a lesbian. As it stood, it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.

Meanwhile, I was awoken by the incredibly loud Adhan (Islamic call to prayers, which is broadcast everywhere over speakers five times a day) at 6:30 a.m. Dawn, my ass. The sun isn’t coming up around these parts until at least 7:30 a.m. After listening to a bunch of people rustling around for a while, I finally fell back asleep.

Later today I fly to Istanbul, and tomorrow morning is the race! My friend tells me she thinks I’m better prepared and in better shape for it than she is. If so, we’re in trouble. Maybe we can treat it like a relay race and take shifts? On the other hand, she did run a full marathon last year, so she at least has proof her body can survive it! As for me? Well, wish me luck! In light of the levels of attention I’ve been attracting here in Turkey, I half-expect to be fending off pick-up lines and invites to go for coffee the whole time!!! Maybe I could talk someone into carrying me for a portion? Does that count?

 

Love – and a little well-timed hate – will keep us together October 22, 2008

This is one goat who knows how to mug for a camera

This is one goat who knows how to mug for a camera

Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of money on dog school. A LOT of money. My German Shepherd went to every class offered through the local trainer: Puppy school, intermediate classes, advanced theory and logic, you name it. We spent Saturday mornings at ‘Agility’, Tuesday nights at ‘Paw and Order’, and who can forget “Choose to Heel”? This was a class in which my disobedient mutt was allegedly going to learn to CHOOSE to heel by my side – with or without a leash. This would be achieved partly through dog-training magic and largely because I lured her on with a fistful of roast beef.

Putting a closed fist of roast beef in front of a German Shepherd (mix breed or not) is like sticking your hand into a piranha tank: STUPID. I renamed that class “Choose to Eat,” and I would drive home each time bleeding all over the steering wheel. They no longer offered ‘Choose to Heel’ by the time Dozer came around, and Pixie, God bless her, never heeled a day in her life.

And Pix was my SMART dog. A veritable genius next to the Malamute, who for all his heart and beauty is several bones short of a skeleton (a la ‘several sandwiches short of a picnic’ but more dog-esque). So despite dozens of hours, hundreds of dollars, and vast amounts of energy contributed toward training their hairy behinds, I was a little bummed to discover that mine are not as remotely well-trained as the average European hound.

Case in point: While walking down a busy Vienna street, I passed a large supermarket. Outside sat several dogs – large dogs, like Labradors and Golden Retrievers, and not tied to anything or physically restrained in any way – urgently awaiting their owner’s return. They sat there anxiously peering in every time the sliding doors would open, hoping to catch just a glimpse of their beloved human. If MY dogs were left unleashed outside a large urban grocery store? They’d be hailing the first cab, trying to make it to the county line before I got out of the produce section. Their only passing thought would be, “Holy crap, we’re free to do as we please! Let’s GO!!!!!!”

This is probably why I find the unwavering obedience of the dogs of Europe so amazing. What kind of spells are these people putting on these dogs!? What kind of Cesar Milan dog whispering mojo does everyone possess!? And it’s not just the dogs. The goats of Greece seem uniquely self-possessed. They all stay within a few yards of their appointed yogurt and honey shack or gyro shed, sans collar or rope or fence. It’s positively spell-binding in its own simple way.

Maybe it has something to do with the baffling love/hate spectacle I witnessed today?

This afternoon, I ran across what may be the ugliest cat in the whole country. If you are familiar with cat breeds, I’d describe him as a “Scottish Fold gone wrong.” I was trying to get a few photos of the spectacle, when an older woman came out with a giant pile of cat food and meat – like enough meat to make a couple decent schwarmas. She placed the plate on the floor in front of the cat, and then proceeded to beat him with a newspaper while screaming at him.

A face only a mother could love...

A face only a mother could love...

I found this pretty damn confusing, personally. Anyway, she left, and the ugly cat went and took a few nibbles off the heaping mound of food. Then he went back to where I’d first spotted him, and resumed his sour expression.

Not two minutes later, the woman came back out, yelled what I can only presume are Greek expletives at him, and yet again swatted at him with a newspaper. She seemed to be swatting him toward the food, but who really knows what the hell was happening here??? She carried on like this for a minute, then started down the street, threw the newspaper in a trash bin, and turned a corner.

The cat turned and made eye contact with me, and I could almost swear he shrugged his shoulders. “She hates me,” his look seemed to say, ‘but I’m ugly as sin, and still I find myself the best-fed cat in Greece.” It is indeed a crazy world.

In other news, I can officially confirm that the mosquitos of Kos, Greece do NOT carry malaria. Because if they did, I’d be in the local hospital. I’ve been on Kos three nights, and it’s pretty much been a bloodletting around here. I’ve got no less than 20 bites per limb, a giant bite on my cheek, and a full-blown ‘mosquito sound’ neurosis well underway. Thank god I spent so much time in the Egyptian section of the Athenian archaeological museum. I applied several of the mummification techniques in order to wrap myself in my bed sheet last night in vain hope of keeping the whining mosquitoes at bay. I even wrapped my head, which is not a particularly comfortable way to sleep.

Communing with goats

Communing with goats

But I think in the end it was worth it. I’m not sure how to prove it, but I’m fairly confident that I’m at least one quart of blood richer for my efforts, and that can only be a good thing as I draw ever closer to the big race on Sunday. More blood = less chance of dropping dead during a Turkish half-marathon. Right??????

 

I’m in it for the t-shirt October 14, 2008

I woke up at 4am to a strange sound, only to find that I’d fallen asleep with the TV on. This time it wasn’t the wind. Or the crying dog. Instead, what had been the Jack Black movie “Shallow Hal” was now hard core porn. Like so hard core it was sort of fascinating from an anthropological perspective. There wasn’t much talking, and what there was wasn’t in English, but I will say the Greeks don’t waste a lot of time on plot and character development and watch your back should you ever come across a woman in a a nurse’s outfit wearing a back strap-on. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

It’s another sunny day here in Santorini, and I went for a long run this morning. The winds are less ferocious, and I wasn’t lacerated by a half ton of sand, which was a happy change from Sunday. Also, you should know that as of yesterday I am in training.

Against all logic and reason, I have signed up for a half-marathon in Istanbul on the 26th. My only goal is to finish before they close down the course. I’m in it for the t-shirt. How did this madness come about, you wonder?

Well, let me tell you: A few days ago, on the train from Bucharest to Sofia – the train I probably would have missed in a more efficient country where things move a little faster and tend to be on time – I met a lovely woman from Slovenia. She’s one of those people that you hit it off with immediately and then still like ten and a half hours and 246 miles (which means the Bulgarian train traveled less than 25MPH. Sad!) later.

Thus, it was a happy coincidence to discover that we were staying in the same hostel, especially since we got in late at 11pm. The next day we ended up going for a run together, and somewhere along the way she told me about the half-marathon she was doing in Istanbul on the 26th. My original plan had been to get there on the 27th, but I couldn’t shake the idea of the run. And the novelty. And having someone to do it with. And the fact that if I just tweaked my schedule a little bit, I could join her. I looked it up on the internet, and the last day to register was today. I know a sign when I see one.

To be frank, I have no business running that kind of distance. I usually run five or six miles, maybe seven if I get lost. However, at this point in my trip, the time I have remaining is about novelty and natural wonders and doing the things I really want to do, even if that just means spending two hours seeking out a thermal pool or going for a run on an empty beach.

For me, that has been one of the best parts about visiting Santorini this time of year. It’s the off-season and the beginning of ‘winter’ (albeit 25C/78F and sunny). The grocery stores are wiped out (and what’s there looks like it came out of a compost bin), windows are being boarded up, and all but a handful of restaurants are closed. If you came looking for nightlife or a swinging party scene, you’re SOL. However, if you’ve ever wanted to stroll down two miles of black sand beach under the full moon and not even see another living soul, this is perfect timing.