Morning in Istanbul

I was up with the muezzin this morning, and out the door of the hotel at 5:15, before the call to prayers ended. Let’s just say that the streets were not exactly teeming with the faithful answering the call. The only things moving at that hour are me and the cats, which Istanbul has a lot of. It is definitely a cat town.

Coffee or Turkish tea was what I was looking for, but none of the neighborhood places were open. In a moment of weakness I surrendered to a taxi driver’s solicitations and got into the cab without a firm destination. This is a mistake. P1000494Although I made sure that the meter was turned on after I got in, and although he indicated with head nods that he understood and could deliver me to a café, the next thing I know we’re tearing down back streets and then are on the Galata Bridge. He’s meanwhile doing the “I love America!” shtick, with thumbs up etc. and I’m getting angrier as the meter gets up to 15 lira. Where’s the café? “Fife minutes.” I insist that he turn the meter off and take me back. He pretends not to understand so I tell him to let me out now. He claims I owe him 54 lira, and points at his meter, which says nothing of the sort. I end up forking over 20 and cussing. The Koranic prescription for cutting off the hands of thieves must have originated after a ride with a Turkish cab driver. P1000527

I still want coffee and a helpful man cleaning his sidewalk points me to a half-basement entrance to a very smoky room where I am provided with Turkish tea by a friendly proprietor. Four men are having a spirited game involving tiles at 6 am and 5 others are watching Turkish CNN. I notice a door in the back and, from that room, can hear the click and clack of what sound like domino tiles from several ongoing games.

I figure out with help from the proprietor that I’m in the Taksim P1000520neighborhood of Istanbul, and walk downhill to the shore of the Bosphorus where I jump on a passenger ferry that heaves up to a barge next to the shore. This takes me across the Bosphorus to the Asian Side. It looks just like the other side, although one is in Europe (Thrace) and the other in Asia (Anatolia). I walk north to the Harem section and take the Oto Feribot back across the Bosphorus to the Sirkeci neighborhood, just minutes from the hotel. Here there is a coffee shop and I order a cup to complete the mission. I’m not even that crazy about Turkish coffee – Malaysia’s is better. It is 10:15 when I get back to the hotel and, having crossed from one continent to another and back again, I’m trying to figure out what to do with the rest of the day.

And another thing. Aplets & Cotlets did not originate in Cashmere, Washington, as I have believed since my youth. I can now state with certainty that they are in fact nothing more than rebranded Turkish Delight.

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Sultan Ahmet Mosque

This is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque, nicknamed The Blue Mosque by visitors because of the interior’s blue tile and paint. It has lush carpeting and is nicely appointed. P1000359The organizing theme of the mosque’s interior is tulips, which I overheard a tour guide say originated in Istanbul. The helpers at the door show visitors where to remove and store their shoes, and provide wraps for women wearing shorts or skirts. The place was mobbed by tour groups from China, Japan and Europe.

The mosque was built between 1609 and 1616, and is very close to Hagia Sophia, which was the most highly regarded mosque in Islam at that time. I do not know why such a grand mosque was built P1000396so close to a great one. There are many smaller mosques in the neighborhood as well, some pocketed in side streets with single minarets. At this point I have stopped taking pictures of mosques because of their ubiquity. It gets to be like photographing every Starbucks in Seattle, or every rug store in Istanbul.

Afterward I walked around the fortifications at the tip of the Golden Horn, overlooking the Bosphorus, which P1000364have been impressively restored.

The Golden Horn area is dense and compact, and therefore easy to get around on foot, and I’ve been putting on the miles. I liked the looks of this wall, made of broken crockery embedded in mortar or cement. It reminded me of the Purple Forbidden City in Hue, where broken crockery is a design element in some of the railings.

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No Train Greece

I walked the short distance to the Sirkeci train station hoping to buy a train ticket to Thessalonica in Greece on the Turkish Railway and, from there, to Athens on the Greek system. However the taciturn Turkish railway clerks simply said, “no train Greece.” But here’s a route pamphlet showing a route to Greece, I wheedled. “No train. Problems.” But I don’t want to leave until Saturday, won’t the problems be ironed out by then? “No, beeg problems.”

I tried for a sleeper on the Bosfor Express to Sofia in Bulgaria and, from there, to Belgrade. No sleeper, only passenger seats. But here is a pamphlet that says sleepers are available the whole way? “No sleeper, seat only.” A posting on the ticket window backed him up on this. It’s a 22 hour trip and really I want Greece anyway, not Belgrade.

At this point the bus is looking like as the only option, which feels like a defeat. I am going to see about a ferry and then, when that falls through as it must given how my luck is running, surrender to flying or to the dreaded bus.Ataturk Monument

At the train station is this noteworthy monument to Kemal Atatürk, regarded as the father of modern Turkey. The inscription – NE MUTLU TÜRKÜM DIYENE – translates, according to Google, as “The Turkish Hacker.” More plausibly, others suggest that it means something like “How happy is he who calls himself a Turk.”

Turkish law forbids “insulting the memory” of the great man, on pain of up to three years imprisonment. Anyone who breaks or pollutes his statues, busts, monuments or tomb faces up to five years in prison. According to Wikipedia, the law has been relied on in Turkish courts in recent years to block YouTube broadcasts and certain blogs found in violation.

So let me just say I think it is a lovely monument, and nothing at all like this movie prop poster from the 1956 film version of 1984.

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Istanbul On No Sleep

When my hastily arranged plan for India failed I booked a flight on Malaysia Airlines for Turkey instead. It’s an 11 hour redeye flight from KL, leaving at 12:30 am. The KL airport is probably 50 miles from downtown but is connected by high speed rail. Going that fast on a train is a new experience.

We passed over India, the Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, Iraq and Syria on the route to Turkey. The plane, a Boeing 777, landed in Istanbul at 5:30 am local time. The weather is below freezing and it is snowing in near-blizzard conditions, a shock after equatorial Kuala Lumpur. I dug to the bottom of my bag for the down vest and parka I last used in China, and wished I had boots – I gave away the Australian torture devices in Hoi An.  (No wonder those blighters need their feet massages). The money changes won’t handle either Vietnamese or Malaysian currency, so I trade in one of my last American $20 bills for what feels like too few Turkish lira.

I wanted to avoid taxis so spent some time figuring out the light rail system and rode, withP1000170 one line transfer, to the Sultanahmet station, where Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and my hotel are located. My fellow riders are a grim and tired lot, bundled against the cold in big functional coats, scarves and knit hats. We exchange blank morning looks. At the station – really just a roadside stop – I found a café with fresh pastry and had a couple of Americanos for breakfast. The view of the Blue Mosque from the second floor of the café is spectacular.

This section of town is old and has a European feel. Other than the McDonalds, which I have now seen in every country I have visited, there are P1000294no chain stores or restaurants, but lots of rug stores, antiquarian booksellers, and restaurants with professional wait staffs. Despite the grey slush it is pretty. The hotel is very old and quaint; my room is tiny and just off the lobby. The Turkish Basil Fawlty runs the place, and has his Manuel to ineffectually boss around. He actually hit a bell sharply and barked to summon housekeeping when I said the room needed towels, but nobody responded and Manuel brought the towels hours later. The room overlooks the street and a light rail line; Hagia Sophia is within throwing distance. Perfect. Oddly, the hotel is a part of the Best Western chain.

After a short nap I spent the afternoon at Hagia Sophia which I remembered from a college Christian art history class that DJ helped me through. For over 1000 years it stood as the largest cathedral in the world. Many of the mosaics were destroyed or covered over due to Islam’s disapproval of religious representation, but a few have been partially restored. Although the structure remains deeply impressive, the sense of loss of what must have been breathtaking Christian art because of religious dogma is palpable, as with the illuminated manuscripts and statuary destroyed in England by edict of its libertine King and by Cromwell.  Photographs of the St. Sophia’s cavernous interior don’t do it justice, particularly on a dark gray winter day when the light is faint.

I had to kick myself later for letting a rug seller waste my time. I P1000276was roped into his shop by his nephew, who wanted to practice English, let me get you my card, blah blah. After this fish was hooked they brought in the Uncle to haul me into the boat. He gives the appearance of listening to your answers to his rote questions but he is not listening; he is planning a fish dinner in his head. I came to dislike him intensely, he is like several small businessmen I’ve met, self-satisfied, pigheadedly opinionated and greedy. He blames “the media” for creating the impression that Turkey is run as an Islamic theocracy although, as I try to tell him, every report I’ve read carefully notes that Turkey has a secular government. He isn’t listening; having delivered his opinion, he’s done with the topic. This rug seller warns me to be wary of taxi drivers; I should use his driver instead, he will pick me up at the hotel tomorrow at 9 am, OK? He is also transparently awful in his appeals to friendship and for some reason felt the fact that he is from Eastern Turkey demonstrated his inherent rectitude, as opposed to those awful Westerners amongst whom he has chosen to live, work and pray. Would it be worthwhile to visit the East, and Ankara in central Turkey? Nah, he says dismissively.

And I hate being sized up at a glance, particularly when it is done accurately.P1000334 “You are from America” says another rug tout by way of introduction, more a statement than a question. How did he know this? He shrugs, like it is obvious, despite all my efforts to appear as a generic can of tourist. I prefer it when they’re wrong, as also happened yesterday: “You were in the military, you look like soldier.” “Yes, stay away or I will shoot you.”

This morning I was awake for the 5:15 adhān, or call to prayer, that I think originated from the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a/k/a the Blue Mosque. It is half sung and half recited by a muezzin over powerful loudspeakers hung from the minarets and sounds otherworldly, beautiful and strange, particularly at that hour of the morning when Istanbul is near silent.

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Kuala Lumpur was the center of British Malayan administration in colonial times, and you can still see buildings from then, including the Central Market. The Japanese invaded Malaya, as it was then known, 90 minutes before attacking Pearl Harbor and held it for the duration of the war.P1000140

After the war the British cooperated in preparing Malaya for independence, which came in 1957. It is a racially diverse country, with Malaysians, Chinese, Indians and Eurasians. Malaysians believe they are the the only rightful occupants of the Malaysian peninsula, and they control the levers of government for the most part but are seen as lacking initiative, as even Mahmud admitted to me. The Chinese own most of the wealth. The Indians, Tamils and Bengalis and Sikhs, make up much of the civil service. Burgess writes about this in The Long Day Wanes.

My driver last night, Manpret, gave me a capsule summary that confirmed most of Burgess’s observations. Manpret disputes what he calls “the Muslims’” claim to original occupancy, stating his belief that most of them immigrated from Indonesia, just as his grandfather came from the Bengal. I asked, by “Muslims” did he mean Malaysians? “I amP1000149 Malaysian too,” he said. “I am talking about the Muslims.” He also noted that the Chinese own most of the wealth and believes the Indians do most of the productive work.

He agreed with my observation that Kuala Lumpur seems to have a broad middle class, unlike Indonesia or the Philippines. He couldn’t say why this was so, but we agreed that it must have to do with the tremendous oil wealth. He drives a new Toyota that he owns and he is rightly proud of it, leaving the plastic on the seats for the present.

Manpret took me to a friend’s shop who sold stuff I wanted for gifts, and got me a good discount on high quality goods. I bought him dinner in the street while we waited for one item to be delivered and he introduced me to some of his friends who are from Myanmar and are in Malaysia under United Nations auspices as refugees, and who work for the Chinese street restaurateurs. Like Manpret, they are Chelsea fans. He warned me, unnecessarily, to stay out of the foot massage places that he says are fronts for prostitution and which I notice are always full of Australian tourists having their hairy feet kneaded.

He was at first incredulous and then appalled when I told him I spent my first night in KL at the Mexico Hotel.

I thought that the hats that I see older men wearing around KL would make P1000162an excellent and unusual gift. An older bellman who wore a felt one told me this type hat is called a “songkok” and suggested I could find them in Chinatown. Manpret, age 29, did not agree with my idea when I told him what I had in mind. Although he took me to a shop that sold them, he said “If I were your son I would not want that as a gift.” He himself wore a complicated piece of headgear that he said he got in Thailand, and that tied in the back. I don’t know if his objection to the songbok was a matter of style or arose instead from the fact that only Muslims wear them. Anyway I learned from the man who ran the shop that the hats can’t be collapsed into luggage without ruining them and so backed off.

New earbuds, laundry, new t-shirts, a watch (I decided against the 425 RM ($140) “Patek Philippe” watch offered just inside a foot massage place) and another visit to the towers ate up the rest of the day. I sweated through my first shirt by 10 am. My flight to Istanbul is at midnight so I’m resting up a bit. I had planned to got to Chennai in India but after making flight and hotel arrangements, and booking a train from Chennai to Delhi for later in the week, learned that I would need a visa for India. This is way too much hassle so I reversed all the arrangements. India will be there for the next trip.

PS, this is the worst bathmat in SE Asia, found on the eleventh floor of the Federal Hotel in KL, an otherwise fine hotel. It reminded me of Don Delillo’s description of Jackie Gleason throwing up on Frank Sinatra’s shoes in the Pafko at the Wall section of Underworld: P1000156

Jackie utters an aquatic bark, it is loud and crude, the hoarse call of some mammal in distress. Then the surge of flannel matter. He seems to be vomiting someone’s taupe pajamas. …


[Frank] looks down at the back of Jackie’s glossy head and he looks at his own trouser cuffs flaked an intimate beige and the spatter across his shoe tops in a strafing pattern and the gumbo puddle nearby that contains a few laggard gobs of pinkoid stuff from deep in Gleason’s gastric sac.

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Banana Breakfast

I am enjoying a banana breakfast in KL, with the very strong coffee that is the style here.

“Time to gather your arse up off the floor,
(have a bana-na)
Brush your teeth and go toddling off to war.
Wave your hand to sleepy land,
Kiss those dreams away,
Tell Miss Grable you’re not able,
Not till V-E Day, oh,
Ev’rything’ll be grand in Civvie Street
(have a bana-na)
Bubbly wine and girls wiv lips so sweet–
But there’s still the German or two to fight,
So show us a smile that’s shiny bright,
And then, as we may have suggested once before–
Gather yer blooming arse up off the floor!”

Much more reasonable banana market here than in Vietnam. Here on the street you get 4 bananas for 2 ringgit ($.66). In the coffee shop, with free wifi, I can watch the Zags struggle against St. Mary’s for the West Coast Conference championship, with the automatic NCAA tournament bid in the balance.

12:25 pm, March 8: And done, GU 75, SMC 63. All the best to SMC in their future endeavors. Recruiting in the Penal Colony League will apparently only take you so far.

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