Friday, June 29, 2007

Bearing North to the Black Sea (Turkey)

On a particularly steamy Sunday afternoon, my friend and I decided to take refuge in my air-conditioned Opel and do some modern-day exploration. As we made our heading northward along the shoreline, we noticed lots of men swimming in the waters to our East. A few women dotted the crowds of men but not many. It was interesting to see people lying on the cement as if the sand within had not been previously hardened by lime and water.
As we left the congestion of Istanbul behind, the scene transformed into a small beach village. Thick trees lined the streets, holding hands to form a tunnel of green. Heads popped out of the open windows of old wooden houses that had seen better days. Our progress up the coast was swift until we hit the junction of three streets. Chaos ensued. A bus full of passengers barely missed hitting me by mere centimeters. Pedestrians casually weaved their way through the mess, as us less fortunate souls in modern vehicles watched longingly. The bottleneck was largely a gift from some selfish driver, whose parked car had reduced this small two-lane road by half. After passing this second major obstacle in our route, my friend and I were met by an additional impediment to our journey: the reverse tails lights of ten cars moving in our direction. We decided that this was not the ideal path for us to follow and so we turned around to find another way up the coast.

In a country with very few street signs, we felt lucky to have actually found one that pointed toward our destination. Now whether or not its sister signs were in place was a different tale, but at least we had our first bearing. I gladly made my way up the mountain, away from the chaos at the water’s edge. To our good fortune, we found a newly paved road with another sign marking the continuation of our journey.

Passage along the ridgeline was much more pleasant. As we closed in on the Black Sea, we noticed that for some strange reason, cars were suddenly pulling off the main highway into wooded alcoves. Some cars even seemed to be stuck in the rolling hills just off the highway. What would tempt these drivers to leave the newly laid pavement to brave the vegetation beyond? It took me a while to realize the goal they sought… a picnic. Now that I think about it, I have passed many a happy Turkish family picnicking in all sorts of places: in city parks, on the grassy shoulders of busy roads, at the beach, on the cement walkway next to the Bosphorus. As an American, I must admit that we Americans are truly picnic snobs. We rarely picnic anywhere that is not designated an official picnic area with proper picnic benches. The Turks on the other hand are much more creative, for them, the possibilities are endless. They don’t need a sign to tell them that they are in a designated picnic area; they picnic when and where they want.

Back to our adventure… Far off in the distance, the Black Sea highlighted the horizon in a deep shade of blue. It began as just a sliver and quickly grew thicker and thicker as the land retreated below the circling tires of our car. My friend and I had finally reached our objective and to our delight, an old fortress stood on the shoreline, waiting patiently for a pair of explorers. We headed straight for the stone tower to peer down on this newly found land. We lowered our heads and traveled up the stairs that countless soldiers had climbed centuries before. From the lookout we spotted beachcombers in every direction. At the water’s edge, swimmers danced in the white frothy waves. Hiding in the shade of Roman arches were several Turkish women in full-length burkas. Off in the distance, ships seemed to follow one another towards the only exit for hundreds of miles, that same exit that hundreds of years before this very fort had been built to protect. The Bosphorus Strait.

Joel Montgomery

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tea with Atatürk (Turkey)

“Çay? Kahve? Su?” questions the tea woman about every 90 minutes. Most businesses in Turkey have an employee whose primary responsibility is to serve tea and coffee throughout the day. Tea is served in small tulip-shaped glasses with sugar cubes on a small saucer. The larger glasses have a handle while the smaller ones do not.

I have not traditionally been one to drink much tea or coffee, but I don’t have the heart to refuse the eagerness of the tea woman as she knocks on my door. My mom was shocked to hear that her son, who has never been much of a tea or coffee drinker, was suddenly drinking two cups of each of the caffeinated beverages daily.

In 1923, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk founded the modern Republic of Turkey. He made major reforms to the country, including adopting a modern constitution, separating mosque and state, and changing the alphabet from Arabic script. Turks love Atatürk and they proudly display his image everywhere. A good friend of mine who used to be in the U.S. Navy mentioned that two Americans in the Navy were jailed because they urinated on Atatürk’s statue. The U.S. government has still been unable to secure their release. When visiting Turkey, make sure to never say anything negative about Atatürk.

Joel Montgomery

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Dinner and a Movie (Turkey)

Last night, my friends and I traveled to Istiklal Street near Taxim Square for a Meze dinner followed by a screening of Ocean's 13. Meze is a typical way of eating in Turkey. It consists of 3 courses. In the first course, the waiter comes by with a large wooden tray with about 36 different cold appetizers that include everything from artichoke to brains. As you make your selections, the waiter shuffles the little square plates like one of those cheap plastic puzzle games with the square missing. The second course is the hot appetizers, followed by the final course of main dishes. Diners often drink Raki, an anise-flavored alcohol, with their meal. My friends and I dined outside, enjoying the cool night air and the sound of dozens of Turkish conversations around us. "Turkish Mariachis," as my friend called them, serenaded patrons in the background. Our Turkish neighbors hadn't even passed the first course by the time we left.

At 22:00, we arrived just in time for the previews to begin. Unlike Latin America, where most of the theaters are brand new with "VIP seating" (Stadium Seating), this theater had seen better days. For twenty minutes, we saw commercial after commercial after commercial after... well, you get the picture. It was incredible. It was ridiculously long. Finally, after probably the 40th commercial, the preview began. That's right preview in the singular. After twenty minutes of commercials and one movie preview, the real movie began. 50 minutes later, the movie stopped midway for an intermission. Everyone left, visited the bathroom, bought a Coke, and had a smoke. 10 minutes later, the movie resumed right where it had left off. What a unique experience?!?

Joel Montgomery

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Sunday, June 17, 2007

On to the Sea of Marmara (Turkey)

Yesterday, I spent a whopping 2 Lira to board a ferry bound for Büyükada, the largest of the Prince’s Islands. The islands, located in the Sea of Marmara, are very popular with Istanbulers during the summer.

My adventure began at 8:30am as I jumped in a cab bound for Sirkeci, the theoretical departure point for my trip. When I arrived, I asked three separate people where the boat was and all I could understand was that I was in the wrong place and that I needed to be at a place called Kabataş. I called a friend of mine who told me that my new destination was very close to my apartment. I jumped back into a taxi and traced my steps back to the port. I arrived at 9:10am and the ferry had just left at 9:00am. The next ferry left at 10:40am. I sat in the weighting area and noticed how everyone was already lining up at the gate like racing horses. I decided to join them. At 9:40am, the race truly did begin. As soon as the door was opened, the pushing and running started. I joined in thinking they must know something I didn’t. We ran into the boat, and leaped up the stairs for the prime seats on the outer deck in the shade. I snagged a great seat next to the edge. During the next hour, more and more people showed up. Of course when the Americans arrived about 15 minutes before departure, all the seats had been long taken. After we had set sail, I noticed a woman standing with her young daughter. I decided to give up my seat and her husband placed his hand to his chest in the Turkish way of saying “thank you.” I went to stand by him and we struck up a conversation, although his English was not too good. We conversed the rest of the way and finally were able to find a seat after passengers had disembarked at the first three island stops. Sea gulls glided next to the ferry dive-bombing pieces of bread that passengers hurled into the air. A seventy-year old man followed the ferry on a jet ski as we closed in on our destination. He ramped up the waves created by the wake of the boat.

Upon arriving at Büyükada, my new friends and I decided to grab a bite to eat. Mehmet, the father, told me that he needed to briefly visit a friend of his and would be returning shortly. His wife, daughter and I were left eating by ourselves. We tried to communicate, but neither of us understood the others language. Body language would have to suffice. Upon his return, Mehmet acted as translator while we drank some Turkish tea. When it was time to pay, Mehmet informed me that he had already taken care of the bill. What an incredible act of generosity. I thanked him profusely and then we went our separate ways.

My first order of business was to acquire some means of transportation. Officially, the islands do not allow cars, but I did see a few while I was there. The options for travel on the island included renting a bike, renting a Phaeton (Horse-drawn carriage), or walking. I chose the former for 3 Lira/hour. The bike was not in the best shape, but it would do. I started my journey by following the road where most of the carriages were traveling. I figured they probably knew where they were going. Unfortunately, the bike would not change to the lowest gear, so steep hills were quite challenging. As I progressed up the side of the island, my view became more and more spectacular. Off in the distance were the other members of the Prince’s Islands along with the Asian side of Turkey. I circumnavigated the island and then decided to brave the steep climb up to a monastery. Up and up and up I climbed pushing my trusty bike along the way. “Why did the monks need to be at the top of the island,” I wondered. The beach is quite nice… AND closer. Finally, I reached the top and was rewarded with an incredible view. In order to enter the church, I had to put on some pants, since no one was allowed to enter with bare legs.

After returning my bike, I decided it was high time for some nourishment. I really haven’t drunk as much milk while in Turkey, so I thought it would be a good time to go dairy and get some ice cream. I chose the waffle cone that had been dipped in chocolate and coated with pistachios. I chose three flavors and traded my 5 Lira for the tantalizing cone. I have to admit that I was a bit disappointed with the ice cream. This is the second time that I have given in to one of my weakness for ice cream and the second time that I have been disappointed. I don’t know what it is, but the flavors are not very strong.

After two hours of intense biking, I needed a nap. My first option was a bench next to the police station. I decided to continue my search when I saw a policeman holding a machine gun. Finally, I found some nice grass where other Turks were lazing in the shade. I found a nice spot and drifted off to sleep. When my cell phone alarm sounded, I knew it was time to head back for the ferry. I waited in line along with the hundreds of people around me like a herd of cattle. When the gates were opened we all began to run towards the ferry to stake our claim. It seems that no matter where you are in the world, people are basically the same.


Joel Montgomery

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Cultural Highlights (Turkey)

Each day is full of new cultural adventures. Here are some highlights:

Haircut – What a seemingly simple task to get a haircut. You arrive, sit for a few minutes, chat a bit about current events, and leave a little lighter. Imagine that you have to go to a new barber and all you can say is, “Hello,” “Thank you,” “I don’t understand,” and “I am American.” I entered the Turkish barbershop as I always do, with my hair a little too long and the usual air of patience. I don’t know what it is about the barbershop, but unlike so many other aspects of my life, patience pervades the experience. Anyway, back to the story, my barber and I spent the first few minutes trying to agree on what I actually needed. I pointed at the sides and top of my hair showing different lengths with my tweezer fingers. I thought we were in agreement until huge chunks of hair started to fall in my lap. I must not have been clear. I stopped the Turkish barber and showed him once again the length of hair to cut off, but this time using my newly cut locks as a reference. After the cut, he washed my hair twice and then dried it. Now I must admit that I am not used to other people washing my hair, but I decided that the old “When in Rome” adage might be a good rule to follow. I have to say that in spite of the language barrier, my Turkish barber cut my hair better than many of the barbers that have scissored me in the States. The experience was well worth 15 Lira.

Traffic –A few days ago, I was in a bus that was driving down the main road that runs parallel to the Bosporus and we suddenly came to a standstill. Now traffic in Istanbul is not an unusual occurrence, but this time, there seemed to be no way to pass. A bus with its blinking hazard light sat diagonally, blocking the outgoing lane, while a smaller truck was blocking the incoming lane. Obviously, the bus had been involved in some kind of accident. Just when I began to embrace the fact that we were going to be sitting for a long while, a policeman arrived on the scene and motioned for the truck to back up and make room for the incoming traffic. The truck driver slowly navigated the small spaces around him, following the police officer’s every order. Just enough space had been cleared for a police bus to pass. The officer returned to his comrades and the vehicle sped on by, leaving the scene in chaos. By some miracle, we were able to pass the wreck.

Driving – Driving etiquette in emerging markets is slightly different than in much of the developed world. Now New York City has its quirks, but Istanbul has been a whole new experience. Firstly, there are no exit numbers or road markers at all. Now that doesn’t really matter when you are driving in your hometown, but for people not accustomed to the city, it’s extremely helpful. Directions here are similar to much of Latin America, where landmarks are the key. In Costa Rica, we always joked that directions in the countryside went like this: “Go 400m and take a right at the lemon tree. Continue on the dirt road until you see a herd of cattle. Take a left, drive 200m east past the church…” Anyway, back to Turkey, the second quirk about driving is the invisibility of lanes. Unlike the West, staying in lanes is optional, especially in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Every evening I spend at least 30 minutes maneuvering through the traffic towards the bridge that crosses the Bosphorus back into Europe. Even though there are only three official lanes, Turkish drivers take advantage of every possible inch of asphalt. I guess the logic is why stay in three lanes when there is room for five.

Food – Plain yogurt is a staple of meals here in Turkey. They even have a homemade drinkable yogurt that is essentially regular yogurt mixed with water. Pistachios are the nut of choice. They are everywhere, in the ice cream, on the ice cream cones, in the desserts, in salads, etc. Fruit and vegetables are incredibly fresh here in Istanbul. Cherries, apricots, green plumbs, watermelon. Often a plate of fruit is served after meals in Turkish restaurants. The lamb here is incredible! In fact, most meat is very tastefully prepared.


Joel Montgomery

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Arrival (Turkey)

Istanbul is the gateway between Europe and Asia. The city is a unique blend of west and Middle East, traditional and cosmopolitan, mountains and water. It is at the center of this juxtaposition of two worlds where I will be spending the summer working for a small plastic bottle recycling company. I live in Europe and work in Asia.

The start of my trip was not a good one. My British Airways flight landed in London’s Heathrow airport just as my connecting flight left for Istanbul. I thought that would be my one irregularity for the trip, but to my dismay, my bags, which had not been returned to me during my forced overnight stay in London, had not arrived at my final destination. Having dealt several times with these types of situations in my past travels, I immediately headed for the lost baggage counter as soon as I caught wind of the impending reality. Luckily, I beat the rest of my 21 fellow fliers who were also forced to weather the previous night in London.

Traveling much lighter than planned, I caught a "Taksi" and gave the driver the piece of paper that supposedly gave directions to my destination. Most of the letters were familiar, but several of them were quite foreign. How do you pronounce such letters… Ç Ğ Ş Ü? Although, I had no idea what the words containing these strange characters meant, the driver appeared to understand.

As the driver made his way to this mysterious destination, I was amazed at the incredible number of mosques. Minarets broke up the skyline in all directions like huge crayons. As the taximeter closed in on the estimated fare my friend had given me, I knew we were close. Then again, maybe we were lost. We stopped at a taxi stand and the driver stepped out to ask directions, or so I thought. He returned with a purposeful step and off we went again. I finally arrived to find an office that overlooked the Bosphorus Strait from the mountainside. What an incredible view. Terracotta roofs seemed to provide a path towards the water’s edge. Barges and ferries made their way up and down the waterway that separates the continents of Europe and Asia. On the far shore, evergreens filled in the gaps between the houses and the deep red of the Turkish flag shook in the breeze. I was finally here after having left over 50 hours ago.


Joel Montgomery

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