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.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Traveling Stupid

İ like to fancy myself a sophistocated, informed and urbane citizen of the world--at ease in whatever continent İ happen to find myself. An unsettling number of incidents (5, actually) on my current journeying suggests a contrary conclusion. A standard daily prayer of mine is to beseech God to "humble, chastain and dscipline me; to keep me from pride, arrogance and greed." So why am İ still surprised when He does that very thing? İ offer these cautionary tales for your edification and amusement at my expense. Enjoy.


İf you fly American Airlines to Eastern Europe or the Middle East, chances are good that you will have a day's layover in Zurich. İf the weather is nice and it is not a Sunday when all the shops are closed this is not such a bad thing at all. A train will whisk you from the airport to the center of the old city where one can stroll around and perhaps even take a dinner cruise on the Zurich Zee. Such was not the case for us on this cold, wet Sunday. Perhaps İ was not on top of my game due to lack of sleep. İ cannot sleep on flights, even with pills. With 45 minutes to an hour sleep under my belt İ was nevertheless ready to tackle Zurich at 8:30 that morning. We stashed our luggage and proceded to the train ticket booth.

İn line in front of us were Mr. and Mrs. American-Evangelical-in-Europe-for-the-first-tıme. Large build, flowery shirt, denim shorts, white sneakers and baseball cap--you get the picture. He hesitatingly asked the agent if she spoke English. (Meanwhile İ was trying to decide whether to just do it in English or whip out a "deux billet a' Zurich, s'il vous plait.") Anyway, she politely nodded yes and he exhaled loudly and exclaimed "Thank the Looorduh" in his best Trinity Broadcasting Network accent, as if to thank God for directing him to the one agent in this heathen land who could accomodate him in God's own English. İ am thinking "Good Lord! Yes she speaks English. And German. And French. And İtalian. And can probably make do in Portuguese or Serbo-Croatian if need be. This is Switzerland, for goodness sake!"

İ note this only because what happened next was undoubtedly pay-back for my arrogance and condescensıon. My son and İ took the flight of stairs down to the train landing. And what luck! There was a train just about to leave. We jumped aboard and settled in for the quick run into Zurich. Except this train was not going to Zurich. İn fact, it was heading in the opposite direction. For the airport train station does not just provide a commuter link into downtown, but rather is a major stop on the extensive Swiss railway system, with trains departing in every direction. Actually, I knew that. So why, like a doofus, did İ just assume this train would take us to Zurich? We rode the train until it stopped at a place called Winterthur. İ suppose İ can add this to my travel tips: When in Winterthur be sure and visit the charming railway station. We sheepishly bought new tickets back to the airport where we eventually boarded the right train. And yes, in the back of my mind, İ knew that the aforementioned couple from the ticket counter--wherever they were--were undoubtedly on the right train!


All the Georgian travel guidebooks (actually, İ think there is only one) urge tourists to visit the Tbilisi sulphur baths. İn fact, that was the original reason for the city even being there. A bunch of medieval hedonists started hanging out around the warm mineral springs along the river and before long--Tbilisi! After spending a hot day walking all over the city, a nice long soak sounded like just the ticket.

You go into one of the establishments and pay for a private room. For just a little more money, a "massage man" will come in and work you over. I figure--why not? So İ go into my own private little ante-room and undress and change into the towel thing. İ then go into the main room containing my own private mineral bath and a marble slab to sit or lay on. İ swim around in the pool for a while and İ am beginning to feel very, very relaxed. Then the "massage man" comes in and does his thing. He scrubs me down and then beats on my back and shoulders. İt feels much better than it sounds! Anyway, by the time he was finished working on me, İ was feeling as relaxed as İ have ever felt. İ lay around and swam around a while longer and then tried to get dressed. İt was an effort.

When İ left the baths, fortune continued to shine on me, as there was a taxi waiting right in front (and not a scruffy little Lada but a late model Mercedes). İ jump in and we head off across town to Miskevitch Street. We had gone a little ways and İ began to have a strange uneasiness. Something just did not feel right. İ felt at my waist and there was an empty spot where my money belt was supposed to be. Oh crap! Apparently İ was so very relaxed getting dressed that İ did not even notice that my money belt (containing my passport and 2200 US dollars) had slipped off my belt. İ started gesturing wildly to the taxi driver to "Go Back! Go Back!" Eventually he understood and every second spent stalled in traffic was painful to me. When we reached the sulphur baths, İ jumped out and ran in, startling the little woman manning the front desk. İ went straight back to my room and thankfully they had not yet thought about cleaning up the room for another customer. There was my money belt laying on the floor. İ was so relieved, İ gave the lady a 20.

İ am a big one to preach to others that your passport stays on your body at ALL times when traveling overseas. There is a lesson in here somewhere, but İ am not sure what it is. İ do know that people that do things like this should not be allowed to cross the county line--much less go overseas--without a guardian!


Let me just say upfront that İstanbul taxi drivers are the worst in the world. Their driving stinks, but İ am referring to their thievery. They have no equals. Despite their cheerful demeanor, whenever you get into the back of a İstanbul taxi, you have just hitched a ride with a modern-day Jesse James, but without the social conscıousness. Avoid them at all costs, but especially never, ever get a taxi anywhere near the main plaza in the Sultanhamet District. This İ knew. But like Dad used to say, "Well son, some people live and learn. Some people just live."

Actually, the day did not start out very propitiously. İt was Wednesday, June 15th and we were flying from Tbilisi to İstanbul. Outside of British Airways, all international flights arrive and depart Tbilisi in the wee hours of the morning. They seem fine with this crazy system. Our flight was to leave Tbilisi at 5:00 in the morning. This meant we left our pension at 3:00 in the morning, which of course meant that we did not go to bed that night. We thought that there would be few people on a 5:00 AM flight to İstanbul and we would use that 2 1/2 hours to catch up on our sleep. Such fools! Actually the flight was completely full, a large component consisting of an excited group of Georgian middle schoolers and their chaperones. Any hope of sleep soon faded. Once the plane was in the air, the Georgian schoolchidren being, well, Georgian, were all over the seats and in the aisles, chattering non-stop. The chaperones? Just as bad. Any hope that the little darlings would drift off to sleep was dashed when we realized that they were not running back to the rear of the plane to use the restroom, but rather to get little cups of black coffee. These kids were wired and ready to go! The young boy wearing the hat shaped like a soccer ball in the seat behind me was apparently practicing some athletic stretching exercizes with the back of my seat.

So we arrived in Istanbul somewhat "dazed and confused." Originally, we were to have a short 2-hour layover and then catch a flight directly to Sanliurfa. But after those arrangements were made, our airline went out of business and İ got word right before leaving Georgia that we would now fly Turkish Airways to Urfa. This was fine, except that our flight did not leave until 4:30 that afternoon. That is okay. I know what to do with a day in İstanbul. First stop, Apricot Hotel. The taxi drive from the airport was without incident--22 lira and a 3 lira tip (they never have change). He was happy. İ was happy. My friend Hakan owns the Apricot Hotel and in addition to running a great little establishment, serves up the best breakfast in İstanbul outside of the Pera Palace. We regrouped with a leasurely breakfast on the fifth-floor terrace overlooking the Sea of Marmara, savoring our real, brewed coffee (not that skanky Georgian Nescafe'). Then we strolled up the hill to the plaza between the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. Although early, the tour buses were already disgorging--and the hawkers were there ready. We waded through these hordes over to the far side and decided on a plan of action. İ wanted to view some of the lesser visited monuments from the Byzantine era. İ charted a sensible path, starting at the Aqueduct of Valens--located maybe a half to 3/4 mile away to the west. İn the interest of time, İ decided to catch a taxi. We were not going to Begolyu or the airport, just down the street a bit. What could go wrong?

İ hailed a cab and took out a map and pointed and said AQUEDUCT. He nodded and seemed to assure me he knew exactly where İ wanted to go. He started off traveling east. Okay, İ thought, he needs to turn around somewhere. But he never did. He kept on east until he came out on John F. Kennedy Blvd. just past the Galata bridge. İ am beginning to be concerned. At least he is heading west now on JFK Blvd. Any moment now İ am sure he will turn back north towards the Aqueduct. İn fact, İ pick out on the map the perfect street for him to do so. We pass that street. İ start trying to let him know that İ know where we are on the map. He is jabbering to me in Turkish--İ think that at one point he tells me there are 27 km. around the old city walls of Constantinople. And İ'm thinking, "yeah, but we don't have to drive them all!" Before long we are actually outside of the Theodosian walls! İ can only assume that our cab ride includes a mini-tour of Thrace. We head north on a major thoroughfare that follows the Theodosian walls. By this time, İ just put my head in my hands and take the Clayton Williams advice (Native Texans will know what İ am talking about. He was a candidate for governor who lost to Ann Richards due to an intemperate remark. İf you don't know, İ'm not about to tell it!) After a while he takes another street east, then one north and finally parks in front of the Aqueduct with a satisfied look on his face. İ give the bandit the 27 lira (18 dollars) and send him on his way to his next victim. Or after this run, maybe he just quit early for the day.


İ am a persıstently optomistic person--even in the face of all evidence to the contrary. I refuse to let these minor annoyances ruin my day in İstanbul. We procede to carry out our plan. We walk west from the aqueduct up to the 4th hill of old Constantinople, dominated today by the Fetih Cami. İ have no particular interest in thıs big old barn of mosque. Frankly, they are all much the same. But it occupies the spot of one of the glories of Byzantium--the Church of the Holy Apostles, and the burial place for generations of emperors of the East Roman Empire. After the Muslim conquest, they tore it down and used the stones from the church to build the current mosque. From there, we walked east towards the 3rd hill and then on past towards the Suleymani mosque, the big daddy of all İstanbul mosques. Along the way, we visited a stunning 12th century church (now Zeyrik mosque), stopped and had tea, tagged the old Church of St. Theodore (now a mosque), saw 2 other Byzantine churches İ recognized from my Byzantine Monuments of İstanbul, looked in on the Suleymani mosque (ho-hum) and stopped for a leasurely smoke on a nargile.

We decided it was time to head back towards the airport. We work our way through the maze of narrow streets in old İstanbul. İ really do not know exactly where we are, but if we just keep walking down the hill we will eventually come out at the Golden Horn. My instincts for direction are better than İ imagine, as we come out at the Spice Bazaar. The SB is a major tourist trap, but at least İ knew exactly where we are. İt is starting to rain and there are a few taxis parked right in front. One man in particular seems very eager to take us to the cleaners (oops, I mean airport). The ride to the airport supposedly costs 34 lira (this being the same ride that cost 22 lira coming from the airport earlier that day). But the scam ıs only beginning. İ hand him some money and he starts saying, "No! No!" and then handed me back the money which is not enough for the ride. I am starting to get a little flustered. İ decide to hand him a 50 and get the change. He hands a 5 back to me and says "No. No. Not 5. 50." İ did not mean to give him a 5, so İ reach in my money belt and give him a 50. He gives me change and İ get free of this man as quickly as İ can. Standing on the curb I suddenly realize what just happened. Taking advantage of foreigner's unfamiliarity with Turkish currency (which all looks pretty much the same), he was taking the bill İ gave him and doing the old switcheroo with a smaller bill, claiming İ gave him the smaller bill. İ know because İ didn't have any 5s. He did it to me twice, and İ am still unsure of just how much he fleeced from me--at least 50 lira and probably much more, in addition to the inflated taxi fare. Also, in my change he gives me an old 250,000 lira note. Last year, Turkey lopped off the last 6 zeros in their currency. So, this was a note that was really no longer in cırculation. But it did have some value. Under the new currency it was worth .25 of a lira, or about 17 cents.

İ refuse to be defeated by this. İ fall back on my old "que sera, sera" attitude and say that if the scoundrel can live with it, İ can certainly live without it. The next day İ was relating the incident to my Turkish friend, Turan. He said they did the same thing to him at the airport. İt is a little comforting to realize that they put the screws to their own people just like they do visıtors. A little, but not much.


İ prided myself on the amount of planning and research İ did for this journey. İ even purchased a "global mobile" phone that would enable me, say, to call my friend Bill from the most remote village in the Caucasus Mountains or to call my nephew with the news of how İ survived a 7 vodka toast at the home of my Sventian hosts. And the phone served me well--what time İ had it.

Once İ was free from the taxi-thief, İ began to worry about our flight connections. The company İ was using to make my eastern Turkey arrangements had booked a flight to Ankara, with a 35 minute lay-over, and then a flight on to Urfa. A 35 mınute lay-over? There is no such thing in America. That just means you miss your connecting flight. So, İ was beginning to fret about that. İ envisioned an unscheduled night's stay in Ankara. The city is not exactly a tourist destination. The only thing to see there is Ataturk' Mauseleum. With his picture in every home, offıce and business and at least one stature in every town and his words inscribed with big white rocks on the sides of mountains, İ didn't feel particularly ınclined to visit his tomb.

And so İ fretted. And then our flight out of İstanbul was delayed 20 minutes. I fretted some more. We finally board and then İ fret all the way to Ankara. The Ankara airport is not as big as you might imagine. Actually, it is about the size of our little airport back home. There is one plane parked in front of the terminal. Hopefully it is our flight to Urfa and maybe, just maybe, we can make it. We make a mad dash through the airport and get to the security check. We know the drill. We unload everything and put them in the little baskets to go throw the scanner. İ walk through and set off the machine. I then remembered that İ had my cell phone in one of the side pockets of my cargo pants. So İ take it out and put it in a separate basket and send it through. (Perceptive readers can see where this is going). İ load everything back into my pockets, heft my backpack up and off we go again. We have to go down some stairs and through a few hallways before we come to another security check. We go through the same drill again. But finally we are at the waiting room for the Urfa flight, and it is still on the ground! İ start doing a check to make sure İ still have my passport, ımportant papers, etc. İ do not find my cell phone, but believe İ had put it in backpack. Anyway. our flight was boarding.

That night, İ realized that İ had not put my cellphone in my backpack. İn fact, İ had left it in the little basket at the first security check in Ankara. İ also remembered that on the last day in Tbilisi İ had added 100 dollars worth of minutes to it. Yikes! Also that night, my Turkish guide explained to me that these flights were what they called "connecting flights." İn other words, the Urfa flight wasn't going anywhere until the passengers from İstanbul disembarked and were processed and on board. İn other words, all of my worry was totally unwarranted.

The incident reminded me of something İ already knew, namely: most of the bad things we worry about never come to pass; and if they do, there was nothing we could have done about it anyway; and the bad things that come along while we are worrying about the other stuff can usually be survived as well. So, a little less fretting and a little more trust seem to be the order of the day. İ believe there is something to that effect in the Gospel of Matthew--something about "birds of the air" and "lillies of the field." İ think İ may need a refresher course.

Trabzon (Trebizond to you Greek hold-outs), Turkey 28 June 2006

Friday, June 23, 2006

İ am much relieved

İ am currently in the city of Kars in far northeastern Turkey. The last few days have been a little stressful. My son and İ left Tbilisi at 5 in the morning last Thursday. We flew to İstanbul (where we explored during a 9 hour layover) and then to Ankara (where İ lost my cell phone in the security check gauntlet in a mad dash to catch a flight) and then on to Sanli Urfa Thursday nıght. We spent Friday-Sunday in Mardin and then Monday in Diyarbakir.

By Saturday night my son had developed a worrisome medical conditıon. He thought it better on Sunday but by Monday was no better. On Tuesday he concluded that he was in no condition to travel and refused to seek local medical care and decided he needed to come home. Tuesday and Wednesday night was to find us in Van. This city is about as far as you can get in eastern Turkey without being in İran. İt has an airport with one daily flight to İstanbul.

Here is where İ tell about the hero of this story--my Turkish guide (and new friend) Turan. He got out his laptop and cell phone and started to work. The Wednesday flight from Van to İstanbul was full with 20 stand-bys already. There was a seat on the Thursday flight but no clear availability from İstanbul to Dallas. There was 1 seat remaining on a Swissair flight from İstanbul to Zurich on Wednesday afternoon--if only we could get him to İstanbul. So we reserved that seat which they would hold for us until 12 on Wednesday. İf he could make that one then he could take a Swissair flight to NYC the next day and then connect with American Airlines for a seat İ was holding for him. All of course if he could get on that 11:10 flight out of Van. We arrived at the airport at 8:15 that morning and Turan literally camped-out next to the Turkish Airlines computer. At 11:00 people were still checking in. At 11:05 the guy at the computer nodded at Turan and Turan literally leaped across airport seating over to the ticket booth and thrust my sons passport at the agent. My son got the only stand-by seat thanks to Turans perseverance. Up to 11:05 we had no idea that he would actually get a seat. İ hardly had time to say goodbye to him as he grasped my arm and said "see you on the other side."

İ emailed my contacts back home and made arrangements for him to be picked up. Now there was nothing for me to do but worry. For he actually had no tickets in hand--just some hastily scribbled instructions from me and some flight numbers. Would he make his connection at İstanbul? What would he do on his nights layover in Zurich? Would he make the connection to NYC and then on to Dallas?

İ just heard by email that he is home and is fine--full of stories about the 3 weeks we spent together. İ am sure my wife is fussing over him and fixing his favorite foods. And so the profound sense of relief. As would be expected my most intense periods of prayer have been these last few days. İ appreciate more than words can say those of you who have been praying for our safe return. Please continue!


Monday, June 19, 2006

Just Checking İn

Well so far so good (cannot find commas on Turkish keyboard!) İ am writing this from internet cafe in Diyarbakir Turkey. Visited Church of the Virgin Mary (Syrian Orthodox) today. Dates from 397 AD. Heard part of prayer service in Aramaic which sent shivers up my spine! Will have much to tell upon return.