Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Someone Worth Meeting

One of the most interesting things about all of my travels these past months has been meeting some of the most interesting people along the way. Aside from seeing new places and experiencing new cultures, there's really something to be said for opening up a little and interacting with those around you. People have the most fascinating stories.

Sometimes you are lucky enough to live in a place like New York City where you bump into all sorts of intriguing people all the time. One of my favorite things about living in New York was learning what people did for a living--often you'd meet someone with a job you never could have even dreamed up. Not to mention that, as a city full of domestic and international transplants, everyone has a personal how-I-got-here, how-I-came-here, or who-I-was-before story.

I find that travelling opens you up to the same kind of thing, but on a broader basis. Over the past several months I've met quite a few people whose stories just floor me. Some of them have had life experiences I can't even begin to imagine. Some of them were kind people who've helped me along the way. Some of them are so inspirational that I want to fictionalize them into my next novel.

So today's next installment of the Turkey sequence is about the people we met along the way. Each interesting in their own way, and each somehow moving us along. (n.b.: Nor is this the last installment of people I've met in my travels. A few more notables from more recent travels will appear in a future post.)

The Cyclist

Our first day in the hostel, I started a conversation with a quiet looking man in the common room just as we were about to head off to bed. It was immediately apparent from the lilt in his voice that he was an Irishman passing through Istanbul. When we asked the usual questions about where he was from and what he was doing, we got the most unusual answer: he was cycling around the world. Okay, I'm just going to let that sink in a bit...

Yes, he was cycling around the world. Very few people have done such a thing, but his goal is to cross the globe on bicyle in the next two years. As we met him, he'd just cycled his way down from Ireland and through Europe into Turkey, and he was currently planning his way through Turkey into Iran and further on to Uzbekistan. In that area of the world he had to apply for entry and exit visas and time his arrivals and departures exactly, which doesn't leave much room for unplanned obstacles underway. Eventually he'll make it through all those countries ending with -stan and all the way across China before hitting an ocean and having to hop over to the next continent. As we spoke with him, he was just updating his blog.

President Obama

We also happened to time our trip to Turkey quite well with Obama's own visit on the last leg of his G-20 talks in Europe. He was pretty much omnipresent for a few days, from billboards to news shows, to the word on the street. Having wrapped up most of his business in Ankara, his trip to Istanbul was to include some sightseeing downtown at some of the major sites, such as the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and a few other places in the historic district of Sultanahmet. Consequently, the city decided not just to shut down these sites, but pretty much the whole of Sultanahmet itself--including public transportation in and out. Nearby businesses, schools, and even the university closed for the day, and the streets were lined with a large and heavily-armed police force.

In response to all this hubub, we encountered a demonstration on the pedestrian shopping street of Istiklal, and as my travel buddy went closer to film the protest, we--clearly foreigners--were approached by reporters. Our Turkish friend was interviewed first, but we were told to stay put as soon as our nationality became known, as the reporter really wanted to get the American opinion on the matter. Many of the Turkish people I'd talked to felt pretty good about President Obama in general and his visit to Turkey in particular, but the country was still a little wary in general of Obama for referring to the Turkish killing of Armenians in WWI as "genocide," for the U.S.' tendency to side with Israel, and for our involvement in Iraq/Afghanistan (Iraq being one of Turkey's border countries).

When it was my turn to be interviewed, the reporter asked me a series of questions about how long I'd been in Istanbul, where I'm from and what I do there, what I thought about the protests, and how I felt as an American in Turkey since politics there have become rather anti-American. I did my best to answer her questions, but it really didn't matter...when the article came out, they had strung all of my answers together and printed them out of context, such that I came off sounding like an ignorant American and where I was quoted saying things I'd never actually said.

The next day, we made a conscious decision to avoid the Obama craziness and go to the Asian side of the city. We left our Sultanahmet hostel as they were preparing to close off the streets, passing a massive police force and throngs of reporters setting up for the visit. As it happened, the friend I was travelling with got interviewed by the local news station, and we didn't actually make it out of the European side of the city before Obama came through: we ended up seeing his motorcade around noon as it raced into Sultanahmet and again later that afternoon from the ferry as it crossed over the bridge we had just passed under.

So although we didn't actually see President Obama personally, we saw his motorcade. This was exciting enough for me and stirred up a surprising amount of patriotism, as it was the first time I have acutally been in the same country as Obama since he's been president.

Obama's motorcade: He could have been in this very heavily-protected SUV!!

A Friend of a Friend

One of the best things about travel is of course meeting up with your friends from around the world, right? Although I didn't personally have any friends in Turkey at the time of my visit, I knew several people who'd either visited or lived there before I went. One friend got me in contact with one of her Turkish friends in Istanbul, and this friend turned out to be such a gem to our trip. Not only did she agree to meet us and show us around, but she took us to some of the local places, introduced us to some of the sights and the food, and generously donated her time, energy, food, money, and language as she shared the city with us. The more locals we met, the more really great hospitality and generosity we experienced--it seemed quite a welcoming culture, and we were privileged to be the recipients. We came away from it having taken our friend's friends for our own.

The Proprietor

The proprietor of the hostel where we stayed was an incredible man. I arrived in Istanbul after midnight and took a pre-arranged taxi pick-up to the hostel. From the moment I arrived, the proprietor greeted me warmly, and that was just the beginning.

Ali was all-knowing and could gladly and willingly answer any question about Istanbul, Turkey, the Turkish language, or pretty much anything else that we posed to him. And we asked him a lot of questions during our stay. He was helpful and funny and had the incredible ability to deal with every type of person who walked in the door.

I've never met a better person than Ali when it comes to sizing someone up and dealing with them accordingly. As soon as he met a new visitor to the hostel, he seemed to know exactly what kind of person they were and exactly how to deal with them. His skills would be the utter envy of customer service representatives everywhere, or anyone who deals with the public for that matter. He first impressed me when, after our first night in the hostel, a Finnish girl in the room next door complained about our "loud" talking the following morning on her way out to the airport. As Ali related this incident to us at breakfast, I was expecting a reprimand and an appeal to be quieter; instead he went on to tell us how he'd defended us to the Finnish girl, explaining to her that we were just seeing each other for the first time in years and were probably catching up late into the night. From this moment on, Ali won me over, and I watched in awe as he put the rowdy British boys in their places with a genious and effective combination of humor and shame, dealt with the highly irritable man who kept complaining about how he couldn't trust the Turkish, and every other sort of person to cross his path. By the time we left for Cappadocia, he said goodbye with a tight hug and told us quite sincerely how he'd enjoyed having us there and would miss our smiles when we were gone.

Not only could Ali deal with any kind of person in exactly the way suitable to their type, but he also had the gift of making someone feel welcome and comfortable. For me, this was in very tangible ways. When I arrived back in Istanbul from Cappadocia--alone--before 8 am on a Monday morning after a sleepless 11-hour overnight bus ride, I had to ring the bell twice before he answered the door. He'd been sleeping at the office since they were short-staffed and I'd awaken him from only two hours of sleep that night. I assured him that I was in the same boat, as I'd not been able to sleep on the night bus, and announced my intention to take a nap as soon as my room was ready; however, the hostel was full and he told me I'd have to wait until after 11 am until the bed was emptied and made ready. As I settled down in his office at the public Internet/computers to wait it out, he did the unthinkable: he offered me a nap on his couch, promising to shut the door and keep guests out and only to come in himself to answer the phone. I've never been more grateful for anything in my life than I was in that moment.

When I left Turkey, it was another genuine goodbye and a sincere request to stay in touch...and we've both since followed through.

The Pigeon Guy

In Cappadocia, we visited the Göreme Open Air Museum, a complex of cave dwellings and cave churches typical of the area. Up near one of the caves, there was a flock of pigeons hanging out near a ledge, and my travel buddy went over to feed the birds some of her leftover bread from breakfast. As she was doing so, a man in the Open Air Museum uniform came out of the nearest cave entrance and told her to stop and wait there. We both thought she was in trouble, but the man returned momentarily with a handful of birdseed which he deposited into her palm and then showed her how to feed the birds. I was watching from a short distance with great amusement when the man announced that these pigeons were special pigeons. Yes, Cappadocian pigeons are no ordinary pigeons--they can roll. At first, I didn't understand him. But he made a rolling motion with his hands and repeated again that these pigeons could roll. We clearly didn't understand what he was telling us, because he then stood and told us to watch. Then, very slowly, he approached the pigeons and herded them off the ledge. As they took flight, they rose vertically, their wings making an unusually loud clapping noise; then, one of the pigeons flipped! Then another! As these pigeons rose vertically in the air, they did backflips while in flight! We were so amused by these birds that I think we in turn amused the museum employee, and he invited us into his office--the nearest cave--for a cup of tea. Tea is a very central part of Turkish hospitality, so we joined him and his colleague in the cave for tea and conversation. The man who invited us in spoke some English, but his coworker spoke only a few words here and there. Somehow we carried on a very basic conversation with a lot of repetition and gesturing and the few Turkish words we knew, but ultimately we all made ourselves understood. We stayed for two cups of Turkish tea (which I'll describe at a later time) and then left to go visit the rest of the museum. But this was the first time that someone had invited us in for tea for no reason at all--not because they knew us and not because they were trying to sell us something, but simply to be nice, to extend some hospitality, and for the sake of our company.

And finally, stay tuned...

Next up: Miscellaneous things about Turkey you've probably never considered. Oh boy!

1 comment:

Esin said...

sultanahmet is my best destination in Istanbul.

I liked.