Friday, January 29, 2010

Turkey Gets a Cold Hard Look at Me.

Istanbul is a complex and wonderful tapestry. History has intertwined threads containing the old and the new, the West and the Near-Orient in a dizzying array of colors, designs, and heritages. Ancient mosques are juxtaposed next to Krispy Kremes and Burger Kings. The famed Orient Express Train station is now situated behind the big yellow sign of a Shell gas station. The imagery of a tapestry seems to fall short in describing this city of many names… perhaps one of those Magic Eye pictures would be a more fitting metaphor. Remember those pictures with all those colors and shapes where if you looked hard enough you were privileged to spy a T-Rex. flying a fighter jet or a unicorn getting beat up by a bunch of leprechauns (if you were one of the lucky ones and could actually make out the shapes you had the distinct pleasure of rubbing this fact in the faces of your friends who were not enlightened enough to cross their eyes and see the images.)? I guess in the case of Istanbul the image of the pilot t-rex would be a thin (in some cases) veil of Islamic culture covering people who are inherently post-modern.
Anyways, in my quest to cross my eyes and see the t-rex of Istanbul, I thought it would be a good idea to visit a hamam. A hamam is a Turkish bathhouse. These things have been a part of Turkish culture for ages. The particular one that I visited was over 400 years old. A bathhouse that is older than the United States of America! Jana, a friend of mine who can speak Turkish took my friend Paul and I to the hamam one Sunday afternoon. We knocked on the door and Jana explained to a very embarrassed older man in a towel that Paul and I were there to enjoy a relaxing Turkish bath. She then left us in the hands of a bunch of half-naked Turkish guys who probably weren’t too happy that we had brought a girl to their all-guy hamam.
After some hand signals and directions in Turkish, we followed a mustached-man back to the dressing rooms, were given some towels and a key to our personal dressing booth. Paul and I looked at each other, walked into our separate changing rooms, took off our clothes and in a bold move that we hoped was culturally acceptable, walked out clad only in towels. (Perhaps ‘hand towel’ would be a more fitting description of the size of the cloth that separated me from the rest of the world.)
Paul and I then walked into the steam room. We sat on the marble floor by a hot faucet and looked uncomfortably at other men in the room who were lounging around with their mustaches curling in the steamy air. All the while I was trying my best to position myself in such a way that my skimpy loin cloth would do its job. We sat in the steam for an uncomfortably long amount of time not knowing what to do until one of the older men who worked there came in and explained to me in a mix of Turkish and English that he was going to give me a bath and a massage. I followed him into one of the backrooms. (Let me just say that normally I would not follow a man in a towel to a backroom when he had just offered to give me a bath, but in this case one of the workers in Istanbul had explained to me and Paul in our home group about the wonderful tradition of Turkish baths. (in retrospect, he did mention that it would involve a lot of touching, though)).
I sat down on the marble floor and the man put on what I can only compare to a brillo pad glove and began scrubbing my arms and back. It actually felt pretty good given the circumstances, and I was interested (and a little startled) to see the amount of dead skin that came off of me. His scrubbing took him down to my right foot and up my calf. I was confused and scared. The last thing that I wanted to do was offend these people of a different culture who were hosting me in their country, none the less I was beginning to feel a bit disconcerted. He began pointing at my towel in a way that concerned me. I gave him a bewildered look and he just kept talking and pointing. So in what I can only blame on a lack of judgment due to steam poisoning and not wanting to seem like a rude American I removed my towel and looked up at the man. He emphatically shook his head and said ‘no’… obviously he had meant something else by his pointing and talking. What it was I guess I will never know. I hastily put my towel back on and shamefully endured the rest of the experience.
After the ordeal was over we paid and walked out. (side note: everyone here has heard of Texas and when I told one of the guys who could speak English that I was from close to Texas he asked if I was a cowboy and then made some shooting motions with his hands and kept saying howdy.) Upon later reflection of the ordeal (and reading in a tourist handbook that no one ever gets entirely naked in a hamam) it dawned on me that my first real encounter with a Turk during my work here had involved me flashing him. I will say that since then I have had better (and more PG rated) encounters with Turkish people, who are really nice and hospitable people.
So here is the moral of the story, whether you are exploring a new place such as Istanbul or trying to figure out a Magic Eye picture, the best advice that I can give from experience is that you should keep your clothes on…

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Well... I survived.

As you have probably guessed I did make it out alive. I went back to my apartment in defeat and scrounged for something there to eat. I grabbed a can of Ranch style beans from the shelf with a solemn promise to repay the beans to the owner. I later found out that the beans were given to my roommate by his parents to make a family recipe soup on a special occasion. Also those beans are not available in Turkey. Day one… success.
I was able to get an ATM to work later and am now reveling in the small victories. I am able to get on a bus (if someone shows me specifically which bus) and actually bought a bag of chips from a gas station with no help whatsoever. I am all that is man.
Since I have been here I have been able to go see the Aya Sofya (or Hagia Sophia) which was a Byzantine Orthodox cathedral until 1453 when the Ottomans conquered Istanbul and turned it into a mosque. Ataturk opened it to the public as a museum in the 20th century. One enters through massive doors that were reserved for the Ottoman sultan to enter through. The interior is filled with a mixture of Christian and Islamic frescoes, mosaics, and paintings. You can see the outline of crosses underneath the Arabic script and designs. The original altar was built at the back of the church under a gigantic mosaic of Mary and Jesus. The altar was positioned so that it faces Jerusalem. After the building was turned into a mosque, the altar was repositioned slightly to the right of its original position so that it now faces towards Mecca. If you love history this place is fascinating!
Later that day, we went to the beautiful Blue Mosque, the Hippodrome, and the Cisterns that sprawl underneath the city. We finished the night with dinner in the Taksim section of town (which is what I would compare to Istanbul’s version of Beale Street) and then stopped by an outdoor Turkish concert. We then crossed back across the Bosphorus Strait from Europe into Asia.
This city is a pretty amazing one. I finally have a working phone so I will be able to actually venture out into the city by myself without having to worry about getting lost and showing up several months later with amnesia and no kidneys.
In my next blog I will discuss my first real encounter with a Turk… let’s just say that it was an uncomfortable experience for both parties.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Day One...

My first day in the city was an eye-opening one. The apartment I live in is in one of the boroughs of a city of close to 16 million people. (I am no mathematician, but if my calculations are correct I think that is slightly bigger than the small Arkansas town I grew up in (I could be wrong though, somebody can double check me on that math (and also check the recent censuses of Glenwood (I have not been there in some time and it could have grown.))))
I woke up in my apartment still jet-lagged and decided that I was going to hang around the place that day instead of going out with my other roommates. I told them that I might do some exploring around the neighborhood and possibly visit an ATM. My roommate gave me a solemn warning not to get lost and explained to me the perils that the confusing infrastructure of this place provided. (Turkish fact number one: Did you know that over here entire city blocks spontaneously rise out of the earth and replant themselves in other sections of town of their own volition?) He pointed out on a map for me where the nearest ‘safe’ ATM was from our apartment (Turkish fact number two: Some ATMs are not safe to use because they will steal your identity and take all your money… and then beat you up) and then gave me his cell phone number (I did not have a phone) and wrote out a phrase in Turkish that I could show people if I got lost and they could help me find my way back (I am reminded of a collar we put on our dog if she ever got lost.)
Shortly after they left I bundled up, wrote out a last will and testament and headed out the door, clutching the piece of paper my roommate had given me as if my life depended on it, because it surely did. I walked down the street away from the safety of our apartment making meticulous notes of every step that I took so that I could make a hasty retreat if I saw a gang of ‘unsafe’ Turkish ATMs roaming the streets.
I followed the route to the bank trying to my best to blend in and act like I knew what I was doing (I am sure that my red-headed 6’4 self did not stand out at all). After some time of walking and giving a wide berth to anyone I came in contact with knowing that if I made a wrong move one of them would hit me with their sword (Turkish fact number three: All Turks carry scimitars, and I believe in some parts of the city they still fly around on magic carpets (I think recent city-zoning regulations have restricted carpet flights across the entire city however)) I made it to the corner where the bank was. I turned around to make sure my bread-crumb trail to the apartment was still intact and then did my best Frogger impersonation (for a visual representation watch the Seinfeld episode in which George tries to cross the street with his newly purchased Frogger arcade game) as I crossed the busy street to the ATM. I made it to the ATM inserted my card and selected ‘English’ I entered my pin and waited eagerly to be rewarded with a handful of Turkish Lira so that I could buy some lunch. The screen flashed “Sorry I am unable to complete your request….”

Will Chris be able to eat a delicious Turkish lunch?! Will he be able to find his way back to the apartment?! Do ATMs really roam around in gangs?!

Find out on the next exciting installment of my blog…