Friday, June 30, 2006

I Saw Dolphins

I spent the last few days of my journey in Istanbul before heading home on Monday. On Friday, I went out to the Princes Islands. The 4 inhabited islands--Kuniliada, Burgazada, Heybeliada and Buyukada--lie out into the Sea of Marmara, though within sight of the Asiatic side of İstanbul. They have a rich history. Back in the days of the East Roman Empire, the islands were used as a place of exıle (excuse my being pedantic here, but if you called a resident of old Costantinople a "Byzantine" they would not know what you were talking about. They considered themselves to be Romans.) Displaced royalty were dispatched here while the new emperor figured out what to do with them. Theologians out of favor at court also found their way to the islands. Frankly, there are worse things than being sentenced to these beautiful islands.

İn the last half of the 1800s, the islands began taking on a new character. The wealthy Greek and Armenian merchant class of Constantinople built expansive villas on the islands. And what villas they are!

As everyone knows, the Greek and Armenian presence in İstanbul is now little more than a memory. There are a few small cafes and shops clustered around the Ecumenical Patrıarchate (Church of St. George), but that is about all. Walking around the old Greek district--the Phanar--is a real eye-opener. The old Greek mansions and townhouses are now decrepit. An occasional one remains maintained and you wonder if it houses a Greek family behind the locked doors. But as the Greeks were pushed out, the area has been taken over by some of the poorest and most conservative Muslims immigrating from eastern Turkey. Frankly, this area reminds one of pictures of Afghanistan, as most women are in the black burka with only eyes and perhaps nose exposed, and the men with beards and woolen skullcaps. While this is NOT representative of İstanbul, it does describe what has happened to the old Greek district.

But the Christians have held on to the islands. Kuniliada is just a big Armenian social club. Burgazada is mostly Greek. Heybeliada is majority Turkish, but also contains the now-closed Greek Orthodox Theological Seminary (of much controversy) and several monasteries. Buyukada is supposed mostly Jewish, though it is hard to tell (Funny, the island doesn't look Jewish.)

Buyukada is the largest, and farthest away. As the ferry stops in turn at each of the islands, it takes a good hour and a half to reach Buyukada from the Eminonu docks. But İ enjoyed every minute of it. The sight of several pairs of dolphins along the way was a special treat.

An unique aspect of island life is the fact that vehicles are banned. You can walk. You can ride a bicycle. Or you can hire a horse-drawn carriage. These buggies are a big hit with the day-trippers from İstanbul who descend on the islands in droves during the summer. The pungent aroma of horse manure mingles with the fragrance of the lush, flowering shrubs Upon arrival, İ chose the cycling option and rented a bicycle in the Meydan (town square). My goal was the Monastery of St. George.

Buyukada has been rightly called the Turkish Hamptons. The homes are elegant and are usually surrounded by lush tropical landscaping. İ was unfamiliar with most of the flowering shrubs, save the hydrangeas. Whatever they were, they were all in full bloom. The residents were not easily spotted. İ suspect they like to sit on their back terraces which overlook their private beaches. But İ did catch glimpses of older non-Turkish men (whether Greek or Jewish) in sailing caps (think Thurston Howell, III) and henna-haired matrons in their garden chairs giving directions to the gardener, and of handsome young people who perhaps spend a little too much time laying around the pool. İ spotted several churches. Only saw one very small mosque with an aluminum mınaret. İt looked as out of place as you know what.

İ leasurely pedaled my way though these residential areas and on towards the monastery. The Church of St. George is located on the highest hill on the island. A cobbled road leads from the main road up to the summit. İ was already huffing and puffing by the time İ reached the monastery road. This was one steep hill! İ am not sure even Lance Armstrong could have ridden up it (Yeah, he could). Anyway, İ started pushing the bicycle up the hill. Actually, this worked out to my advantage as I was bent over double and used the bicycle seat to rest my head as I trudged along.

At long last, I reached the summit. The church was closed until 2:30, so I settled in and made myself at home on a park bench nearby. I carried a small backpack throughout my travels--ideal for my hat, water, camera, batteries and journal. For many years, I have kept a small journal on me when I travel. I make note of names and places and events, make observations, and draw small maps. I dug around around in the backpack and discovered that the journal was missing! I briefly panicked. Almost a month's worth of writing--gone! But then I remembered what I had written not many days before--about worry and fretting about things that could not be changed. So, I concluded that there were 3 options: 1. The journal had fallen out of my backpack when I was scrambling around in it for my water bottle. I would retrace my steps on the island and find it. 2. The journal had fallen out of my backpack. I would retrace my steps on the island and not find it. In such case, I would reconstruct my journal and this would be a good test of my memory--and a good test of my being able to "walk the walk" about not fretting over transitory things. 3. The journal was on the nightstand in my hotel room and I would find it that night. I took stock of where I was: I was at a monastery on the top of a mountain, with a cool breeze blowing, a view of sailboats bobbing in the harbor below, and I was worried about a damn journal! I took a deep breath, said a prayer and put it out of my mind.

Frankly, I was a little disappointed in the monastery church. There were no priests around (gee, shouldn't they be on hand to provide photo-ops for us tourists???); the church had no gift shop as I had been lead to believe; and no photographs were allowed inside. This may give you real insight into my spirituality that day! I guess I was a little tired and cranky by this time. I have to laugh at myself now, though.

The bicycle ride back into the town was a breeze, being mostly downhill this time. And what luck! There was a ferry right there on the dock preparing to leave. I jumped aboard for the ride back to Istanbul. Perceptive readers will here recognize a marked similarity between this scenario and my "wrong train out of Zurich scenario." The ferry was not going back to where I had come from. Just because a ferry brought me to Buyukada, did not mean that it was the only ferry stopping there. This ferry, I learned, was headed for a dock on the far southern end of Asiatic Istanbul. Well, it's still Istanbul, you say. With 14 million people, this would be similar to aiming for Washington DC and getting off in Baltimore. Some nice Greek tourists consulted a ferry schedule (which apparently everybody but me picked up when they first bought their tickets) and put me back on the ferry to Buyukada. So, once more, with the kindness of strangers, I backtracked and eventually made my way home.

The best part of the day? I saw dolphins.

Oh yeah, and the journal--I never found it. But I did reconstruct the whole thing.

6 comments:

Hilarius said...

Glad to hear you have returned safely, and that you had what sounds like a wonderful trip. Now you just have to write the travel memoirs and get a publisher and become the 'Rick Steves' of the Eastern Med!

Seriously, we are all looking forward to your news of our brethren in Turkey.

John said...

The "Rick Steves of the Eastern Med?" Ha! I did take his advice of packing, though--30 days out of one backpack.

I visited many,many historical sites associated with the Greek, Syrian, Armenian and Georgian Orthodox churches in Turkey. My actual contact with members of the Greek church was very slim--I was ill the last 2 days in Istanbul and missed a church service at St. George's. I did have good exposure to the Syrian Orthodox community in southern Turkey-even had tea with the Metropolitan of Mardin. Also, I had much contact with what I can only describe as a resurgent Orthodox Church in Georgia. In coming weeks, I will be posting my observations on all of it.

Mimi said...

Oh my goodness, it sounds so amazing. I'm so glad you are home and I look forward to continued updates. Especially about the resurgance of the church in Georgia.

And, the dolphins sound fabulous.

Anne said...

Glad to have all your impressions! I love the way your writing flows. Lots of imagery with a few doses of personality. I enjoy your frankness and symbolism. "Traveling stupid" is such a hilarious combination of words. Thanks for taking us along with you via your journal.

s-p said...

Dolphins I can see in San Deigo. I wanna see the landlubbers! :)

John said...

Thanks, Mimi and Anne. And S-P, you dealing with a Texas boy here who has never seen San Diego or dolphins!