Wide Awake in Wonderland

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

Goodbye with a smile October 31, 2008

Right after I cleared customs at JFK. Looking surprisingly lively for having been up 26 consecutive hours (with more to go!)

Right after I cleared customs at JFK. Looking surprisingly lively for having been up 26 consecutive hours (with more to go!) As an aside, the customs process we've set up for visitors (with the fingerprint and the photo and all that) is the living, breathing definition of clusterf-ck.

It’s nice to be back among people who flush their toilet paper. In Turkey – if there is any – they want you to throw it into a community trash bin or just on the floor in the general vicinity. Either way. this practice ensures a perpetual state of horror for the Western user. It’s also a fairly solid guarantee that the entire room always smells like a construction site Port-a-potty that’s been baking in the sun for a month.

Having lived with this TP scenario for the last three weeks, I thought I’d seen it all. That was until the water stopped running at the hostel last night, and things turned a little bit “Midnight Express.” After defiling the three bathrooms (which wasn’t much of a stretch), the natives grew restless. My friend and I were up late into the night, and at one point I heard water running. “It’s back on!” I told her happily, and she listened for a moment and informed me that what we were actually listening to was the sound of men urinating in the shower next to our room. ***cringe***

But, as you know, that is behind us now. I’m on an Air France flight from Paris to New York, and she is on a train to Macedonia. Although I’m in economy class, the trip seems positively luxurious. There’s a little TV in the back of the seat in front of me with dozens of movies (I just watched “Baby Mama” and “Sex and the City” and have moved on to “Hancock”), they served me a decent hot dinner that wasn’t a greasy schwarma sandwich, and no one has gratuitously hit on me in thirteen hours. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Turkey, but the men really need to get a grip.

We never actually got into the Blue Mosque the first time around, so we went back yesterday. Our timing was once again off, as prayer was in full swing, so my friend went to the bathroom, and I waited outside by the entrance while some guy shot a video of me. That ought to be some fascinating footage – me minding my own business, then realizing what was happening and transitioning from self-conscious to annoyed. It occurred to me that this must be a small taste of what it’s like to be a celebrity – you can’t get five feet down the street without people hassling you. Admittedly, in that case there are a few more perks (millions of dollars, mansions, fancy dinners, creative work, etc.), but it would still be a drag to put up with that day after day after day.

Anyway, imagine my surprise when I saw my friend approaching and chatting with a man in a suit. They shook hands, and as they drew closer I recognized him: The Blue Mosque Man from two days before!!! The jerk that treated her like crap! Could it be?? Was he apologizing for his behavior?

They came up, and I looked at her wide-eyed. He turned, put out a hand, and introduced himself as if we had never met.. Wha….???? I said to her, “Isn’t that the….???” and she said, “Yes.”

“What did you just say to her?” he snapped.

In hindsight, what I SHOULD have said is “That I recognize you. You met us two days ago, and you’re a total dick. Go away,” but instead I felt intimidated by the way he was looking at me, and went into an inadvertent Helen Keller impersonation – deaf, dumb, and blind. I completely ignored him and grabbed her. He followed us for a little while, and – true to form – took his leave with a rude comment. And he wasn’t the only guy to turn hostile when rebuffed yesterday. Un-freaking-believable. They should make these guys wear a sign.

But don’t get me wrong. I’m a fan of Turkey, and I would recommend visiting EVEN IF you have blue eyes and blond hair. Honestly. I would like to go back and see the areas I didn’t get to visit and spend some more time on the coast.

Güle güle (pronounced goolay goolay and probably not too bad sung to the tune of “Wooly Bully”) is one of the key phrases of my (pitifully limited) Turkish vocabulary. It means ‘goodbye with a smile’, and despite the annoyances and troubles and the concern that I might be forced to open a can of American whoop @ss on some unsuspecting guy, I am leaving there with a smile.

Otherwise, I’m kind of a weird mix of emotions right now. I’m ready to take a break from the traveling for a while, but I don’t know what happens next. I don’t have my career or even a job to return to, and I know deep inside I don’t want to go back down that road if I can possibly help it. I feel a little scared, but the plan is to channel that fear into writing and see what the universe offers up in the upcoming weeks and months. Put into perspective, my level of fear pales in comparison to how i felt when I left just three months ago for Iceland.

Traveling is all-encompassing. It takes you out of your head and away from your day to day concerns. It gives you a chance to just ‘be’, and reconnect with yourself, and spend your time as you wish, and see what that feels like. So now that I have this knowledge and this knowing, it’s time to apply it. One of my friends told me today, “You will be refreshed once you get back. Take some time to reflect on your trip and decompress. Then everything will begin to become clear for you.”

Amen to that.

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It’s always good to have a backup plan October 27, 2008

In case you were starting to worry about my job prospects based on my faith based plan to transition to a writing career, you may be relieved to hear I’ve gotten some alternative offers. Saturday I received my first marriage proposal of the trip. Should things not work out for me back at home, I have been invited to live out my days running a cheap hotel in Bodrum, Turkey. This arrangement was suggested during the ride to the airport, along with pleas not to leave or to return immediately after the marathon. At first I was offered the role of business partner, and then my impending departure encouraged him to put all the cards on the table. When my young suitor sensed I wasn’t going to go for it, the ante was upped with promises of regular picnics, fishing trips, and all-night clubbing with the hotel guests in the summers. I’ve hit an age where all-night sleeping is WAY more appealing than all-night clubbing, but I guess this is one of those differences that keeps things spicy?

If you think it sounds aggressive – if not preposterous – to propose to a hotel guest you’ve known for less than 24 hours, then you clearly haven’t spent much time in Turkey.

I had heard the men were pushy in their zeal to sell carpets, trinkets, and fish dinners – and they are – but I seem to be attracting an additional level of attention. For those of you that aren’t naturally aggressive and would like to try these moves on the next interesting female you see, I offer this step-by-step outline:

  1. Make eye contact and stare into her eyes as if you are trying to bore into her very soul. Think about pictures you’ve seen of Charlie Manson or Saddam Hussein and try to emulate that semi-insane and super intense ferocity

  2. Continue stare for as long as humanly possible while simultaneously mustering courage for step three

  3. Break the ice with a cheap and easy pick up line. “Where are you from?” is exceedingly popular, but innocuous. You won’t be original, but you probably won’t send her into a high speed run in the other direction. This is also best-directed at someone you’re pretty sure doesn’t live next door. If you want to mix it up, some other options include:

      • Are you from Heaven?
      • I would like to make your holiday better.

      • Do you know this word, “Gorgeous?”

      • My friend and I have a bet. Are you from <<<insert country here>>> (helps if you have a friend)

      • Buy her a mussel from a street vendor (I fell for this one, and that is how I met Octopus Man)

Octopus Man was no doubt the worst of them, although Carpet Man and Blue Mosque Man were contenders. And, in the hopes you will find it entertaining and perhaps educational, I will share the moves and highlight the fumbles.

Carpet Man: 21 or 22 years old – Stopped my friend and I on the street outside a carpet shop in Sultanahmet. We cannot remember if the pickup line had to do with where we were from (my recollection) or “Can you tell me the most famous thing about Turkey?” The latter line was used at some point, and I guessed carpets and then kebap, but the correct answer was “hospitality!” We were then invited in for apple tea (they all try to get you with the apple tea). However on this occasion, my friend seemed open to it (probably the cold and rain as much as anything) so I went along with her.

I sat on the far end of the couch, and left her with the middle, next to him. Other young men emerged from elsewhere in the store or on the street, and wanted to discuss American politics, the U.S. banking system, and how long Slovenia has been on the euro. Carpet Man seemed disgruntled and moved to the other end of the store to look at a newspaper. At some point, the discussion turned to hammams (the Turkish baths), and where we should go.

A voice that sounded like a robot announced, “I give good massage. I give good massage.” Carpet Man was back in the action. “You do not waste your money on hammam. I massage you best.” We declined, and he waved me over, “Come here. I give you massage. You no like, you leave.” Then he tried to get me to go upstairs because “he had something to show me.” Yikes. What am I? 15 years old?

At this point, I was glad I hadn’t drank the tea (which tasted like hot apple cider). I’m such a paranoiac that after one sip I realized that if he’d slipped something in it, I wouldn’t be able to taste it. Then I noticed that my friend had drained hers dry – one of us needed to be sober enough to get us out of there!

The massage offers were endless, and he eventually placed himself on the arm of the couch just inches away from me. “I’ll massage your legs!” he cried out. Now, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m really horribly sore in my thighs…but there’s no amount of sore that would cause me to go for that. We got up, and as we were walking out, he commented that I had very nice legs, grabbed both my calves, and pleaded for us to come back tomorrow.

Critical blunder: Excessive aggressiveness

Blue Mosque Man: early to mid-30s – Approached us as my friend was taking a picture of me in front of the Aya Sofia. “I will make picture for you!” was the ice breaker. He worked through the usual rigmarole (where from, how long here, what have you seen), to which I kept replying that we were in a hurry and thank you very much, but no thank you. Then I went back to trying to pose for the photo.

At this point, Blue Mosque Man (still standing next to my friend) starts saying, “She is very pretty. Don’t you think she is very beautiful?” Uncomfortable photo completed, I tried to get us out of there by mentioning that we were rushing off to the Blue Mosque. He said that we needed to hurry, because it was closing soon.

My friend had been in Istanbul a couple weeks ago and went into the mosque at 7pm, so she vaguely implied that she thought he might be mistaken. From there, he demanded to know why she thought he was lying. As we approached the mosque, I stopped to take a photo. At this point, I was pretty sure I heard him ask, “Where are you from? Are you from Mars?” I took a couple pictures as they walked away together. As I just about caught up to her, he turned around and walked toward me. “Oh great,” I thought…and then he walked right past me without a word. When I caught up to her, he had apparently been incredibly obnoxious and even mean to her! This, I think, only works with women who are into being abused.

Critical blunder: Unfounded rudeness

Octopus Man: 25 (he showed us his ID, born in 1983) – You can buy a wide variety of foods from the Istanbul street vendors – corn on the cob, cashews, rice and garbanzo beans, sesame bagels, and mussels. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t feel compelled to try them all. I stopped to ask if the mussels were raw, and the vendor cut one open and presented it to me. “Is it raw? Is it raw!?” I kept asking, but he didn’t speak enough English to answer. He’d already cut it open, so I felt compelled to take it. It was, by the way, totally disgusting. It had all this bumpy stuff – like eggs or something. I like mussels, but this was sick. Are they all that way raw!?!?

Anyway, a guy in a suit showed up and ate a few mussels. When I tried to figure out if I needed to pay the vendor, it was clear that the suit guy (later to be re-dubbed Octopus Man) had taken care of it. I thanked him, and we walked away.

Seconds later, he came up alongside us with the typical questions. His English was abysmal, so we slipped into silence and continued walking. He trailed along all the way. Then he started reaching out via pantomime. “Do you dance?” he asked me. (and if I’d had the words, “Not well” would be the accurate answer. I try to avoid dancing because I have no natural sense of rhythm and am quite a pitiful sight.) We tried to explain about the marathon the next morning and were not partying and needed our sleep, but it wasn’t getting through.

He spent a lot of time on his phone, and eventually communicated that he had friends that spoke good English. He wanted me to come with him to meet them. Obviously this was not going to happen.

I had a list of Turkish words translated into English given to me by Orhan, and I pulled it out to see if it would help. In response to my sorry attempts to communicate, he put his arm around me and squeezed in a “You’re so cute” kind of way. But then the arm didn’t leave. And then he kept trying to kiss my cheek. I kept looking at my friend – now laughing uncontrollably – and mouthing the words HELP ME. I would slip out of his grip, and he would come back twice as strong. I remember reading that if you SCUBA with giant squid they will wrap themselves all around you. The same can be said for young Turkish men who buy you a disgusting raw street mussel.

Anyway, as we walked down the street, my friend got stuck in the role of translator, even though she doesn’t speak Turkish. At one point, he pulled out his wallet, which she understood to mean he wanted to know how old I was. “I’m old,” I told him, “OLD. Too old or you,” but he didn’t understand, and kept looking at me deliriously.

Having been through this the night before with Orhan who had seen my passport and still didn’t believe me, I really didn’t want to go through this again. Octopus Man was telling us that he was 25, and started guessing my age. “21?” he guessed. No. “22?” On it went. When we got to 27, he pulled out his wallet again, apparently thinking we didn’t understand what he was asking.

“Just agree,” I told her. “Tell him anything. I do NOT want to get into this with this guy.”

The numbers started over. Eventually, she nodded to him, “Yes. 26. She’s 26.” He hugged me again in sheer bliss. By now we were to the hostel, and said goodbye. After thwarting yet another attempted kiss, he touched me on the cheek, “Baby face,” he said, smiling down at me, “Baby face…”

No kidding, baby face. You have no idea, my friend. NO IDEA.

 

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?