Wednesday, April 28, 2010

April 28, 2010 Impressions: Turkey

Impressions: Turkey


I have provided little traditional travel blog coverage over the past few months and I’m feeling a bit guilty about that.  Selfishly I focused on topics that appeal to me with  little consideration for or attention to the reader’s interest in details of travel through foreign countries.  Some details are valuable for foreign travelers as we well know since we benefited from such information.  For example, we were desperate for details of border crossings, particularly Islamic countries who aren’t america-philic at the moment.  Getting into the Sudan, for example, was a horrendously awkward and complicated experience because we had to plan many months in advance as a result of their anti-American policies.   In addition, we had to cross from Aswan Egypt by ferry to the lonely and desolate outpost of Wadi Halfa in the Sudan.  There’s almost no way to get reliable information about any of this without reading the accounts of other travelers.  I am very appreciative that travelers made the effort to write detailed accounts of their travels and feel a bit shamed by the fact that I have invested little energy into reciprocating.  As an example of my insensitivity to this matter I have been working on a story called, “Getting to Wadi Halfa,” but little of it will be of practical or informational value to the reader.  When I release the story I'm sure you'll agree.  Instead of providing useful information, I delve into tangential issues that suit my fancy as I have done on almost all issues I’ve chosen to discuss.  So, inspired by guilt I have decided to do a series of travel impressions of the countries we have passed through and I have quite randomly decided to start with Turkey.  The impressions are not likely to provide useful information but they do focus on the country more than on my rather whimsical and tangential meanderings.  Well not entirely.   I must warn you, I am inherently who I am, so although this is an impression, please be alert as I will most certainly take a detour here and there.
Turkey provided some of our most memorable experiences.  I did write about my Turkish friend, Semih Orcan, “A Most Unforgettable Character,” but there was little in that story which reflected general impressions of the country.  In my mind’s eye, just sitting back with eyes closed to let the Turkish experience concentrate into an image, what breaks through is a smile.  I suppose it could be my smile because we were so pleased with the Turkish experience, but the smile also represents a summary of the faces of the people whom we met.  The Turks are, in a word, friendly and, to add two more words, very hospitable, except at the borders where they were officious and indifferent.  The two personalities, the dominant friendly one and the rarely seen serious personality of the government agents at the border, remind me that Turkey has been at odds with itself for a long time.  As Semih reassured me, the Turks are a unique, nomadic people who originated from the Atlas mountains of central Asia.  They are very independently minded and quite warlike, characteristics which paradoxically are not incompatible with or preclude friendliness and hospitality. That comment may require more than my say-so for you to trust, but I do feel quite comfortable saying it. Like other Asian invaders, the Huns of Atilla, the Mongols of Ghenghis Khan, they took what they wanted as they moved across the central regions of Asia through what is now Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, Northern Iran and Iraq, and modern day Turkey. Incidentally, Turks can be found as far away as Siberia.  Along their journey the Turks would eventually encounter the Arab peoples who were equally warlike, if not superiorly so.  The Arabs are friendly and hospitable, too, but as my future comments about the Arab peoples will reveal, there frequently is an “edge” to the friendliness. That’s just not the case with the Turks. Their friendliness is authentic and genuine. So back to the historical reference. The Arabs used their military might to change the world of those they encountered by forcing Islam on the vanquished.  This cultural meshing infused a sense of rigor and discipline into the lives of the Turks that was not entirely welcome.  As Semih said with somewhat of a wry smile, “I love that we are rebellious.” You may remember that Semih was a Marxist political radical who, at one time, embraced violence to change the status quo in Turkey. He’s been tamed by jail time and family life.  Now he’s an over-weight capitalist who makes tons of money as an entrepreneur.  Semih said that although the Turks were “conquered” by Islam they never fundamentally committed to the religion or the cultural values of the Arabs who forced the religion on them. The Turks “hate,” says Semih, that the Arabs want to control everyone and everything. “They even had to wrap up their women in black cloth to protect them against themselves for the Arab men are also the most over-sexed men in the world.”  Wow!  That was an intensely insightful mouthful!! I needed those quotes because whereas I would be reluctant to say something like that myself, it’s more than fascinating in a Freudian sort of way, if not revealing, to hear them from a fellow muslim.
Thus Turkey is a rather unique blend of independently minded nomads who settled into a sedentary life style in Anatolia, then organized by the Ottomans, a Turkish emirate (subgroup)  who were imbued with Islamic principles and visions of an empire.  Under their influence, the heretofore fractioned Turks, consolidated and threw the Christians out of Constantinople. This historical moment concluded as a permanent intrusion of Islam into nearly exclusive Christian Europe (50 years later the Moors of Spain would be permanently ousted by Ferdinand and Isabella in cruel and bitter fashion i.e. the inquisition.  Perhaps they were motivated by the recent European invasion of the Turks in the mid 15th century, who then had to rescue the fleeing Muslims and Jews from the Iberian peninsula).  The defeat of the Constantinople marked the end of the Roman Empire, which started in 753 BCE and ended two thousand years later with the founding of Istanbul.  There is no greater symbol of this violent landmark event that the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.  It was built by the Roman Emperor, Justinian, in 532 CE, and was the architectural marvel of its time with the largest cupola ever built.  It remained the largest religious structure in the world for 1000 years.  When the Ottomans knocked out the Christians they converted the basilica to a mosque and renamed it the Ayasofia.  This magnificent creation of humankind embodies, pardon the anthropomorphic reference, the violent, explosive interface of Islam and Christianity.  It’s on my list of the extant wonders of the world and certainly a must see.

A view of the cupola of the Hagia Sofia in Instanbul

There,  I’ve done it again, delving into some tangential issue, like the history of the Turks, as if it has some direct relevance to what I’m talking about.  Incorrigible!!  So let me right my ship, reset my compass, and head in the direction I intended:  my impression that the Turkish people were, by far, the most friendly, hospitable and helpful people we have met during our kickabout journey.  First, an experience to serve as a lead-in:
When Maria and I were approaching the southwest coastline of Turkey there was an incident I have not reported up this point in time because, frankly, I didn’t want to upset the family back home.  We were coming down a very steep slope of a coastal mountain. It was raining and intermittently snowing as it had during most of our trip through Turkey.  Anyway, Kiharambee!, our trusty 3 ton Toyota Landcruiser misbehaved on this wet, slightly snowy mountain path.  As we approached a right turn in the mountain road, I discovered that it was a sharper turn than anticipated and started to slow down. I was definitely going too fast for the angle of directional change so the problem started with my miscalculation, but I thought it was certainly manageable.  I anticipated that the anti-lock braking system would help me so I gave a punch to the brakes to slow.  However, instead of the expected braking-release-braking pattern of the anti-lock system, the brakes locked and the wheels turned to the right.  I was completely unable to do anything about it and the car went into a spin.  The back spun clockwise around the front and, in the middle of the turn, we felt we might tip over.  At that moment, I thought the trip was over and maybe worse.  However, instead of flipping the car continued to spin and soon we were traveling in reverse down the hill.  From that position the car made a funny rapid attempt to conclude a full 360 degree spin.  I had, at that point, the optimistic vision of us continuing the spin to a head first position and all would be good.  However, that wasn’t our fate.  At about 270 degrees into a full turn the car slammed, peculiarly I might say, into the hill side next to the road.  It was peculiar because it was essentially a right angle movement to the direction we had been moving and an apparent defiance of the law of physics.  So, there we were, clearly alive, but with out butts (sort of) slammed into the mountain’s side and the nose of the vehicle pointed at right angle to the road which encircled the mountain.  We could see little of the road to the left and little to the right.  On the other side of the road was a good thousand feet of open space.  We could see, by the way, the mediterranean to our right in the distance, but it was a long way away and a few thousand feet below us.  Again the thought returned. The trip had ended.  We could only imagine the amount of damage three tons of weight could do to various parts of the vehicle, like the rear axle, after slamming into the mountain.  Of course, we didn’t want to dwell on issues like this because the most immediate concern was our predicament.  I fancifully thought I might just drive away from the mountain side but the front wheels were buried in a water drain that lined the road.  It was about 20 inches deep and about 4 feet wide.  I put the car in the lowest gear and figured that a four wheel drive ought to be able to pull itself out of a mess like this.  It couldn’t.  It didn’t budge. My worst fears were beginning to feel more likely.  Only a few seconds had passed from the beginning of the event and other cars had passed us by.  Soon we noticed they had stopped.  Within two minutes we were surrounded by Turkish people and none spoke more than rudimentary English while my Turkish was in the meet and greet phase.  One guy told me that he had a similar problem as we did with the slippery mountain road.  He used gestures to communicate,  but clearly he had fish-tailed and ended up on the other side of the road.  Others slowed and parked.  They quickly organized to warn vehicles coming down the mountain and up the mountain to stop.  There were at least a dozen men. Some began to assess the situation and looked beneath the vehicle.  The rear wheel had bounced over a rock that blocked a move forward.  They worked to free up the rocks from underneath the wheels and guided me to move forward.  Others continued to manage the mountain traffic.  Within five minutes of the beginning of the event, we were released from what seemed a completely locked in situation.  Everyone gathered briefly around the car to make sure we were fine.  Some checked the underside of the car.  I did as well.  The exhaust pipe had crimped and had fallen free.  One guy ran to his car and came back with some wire.  He wrapped it around the exhaust pipe and attached it to the frame.  He was very proud of his work and told me with the few English words at his disposal that he was a mechanic in the next town.  Another man who spoke better English told me that we should go to that mechanics shop to have the car checked.  Everyone was smiling and clearly happy that we were all right and happy that the car still seemed to work.  No one dallied.  We were, after all, on a busy mountain pass and many vehicles had been stopped.  Each, with triumphant smiles on his face, shook our hands and returned to his vehicle. We returned from the side of the road to the main road and continued down the mountain, though gingerly.  We felt that we had survived a life threatening event and wondered that maybe the car had survived too.  It drove so well we didn’t stop at the mechanic shop at the base of the mountain and continued towards our destination down the road.


A view of the coastal mountain road minutes before Kiharambee! misbehaved


We were about 60 miles from the town of Fethiye, a small port town, we had selected quite randomly for our next stop.  The south coast in that region was speckled with small coastal towns nestled in the various nooks and crannies of the rough coastal region.  We poked along at about 40 mph.  I had lost trust and faith in the engineering of our vehicle, which I had supreme trust in up to this point in time.  In addition, it may have suffered damage over and above what I was certain was a failure of the anti-lock braking system to function correctly.


Port at Fethiye from our Hotel 

We reached the outskirts of Fethiye about 6PM and saw the Toyota sign of a dealership on the road side.    It seemed like good fortune, so we pulled into the dealership and began to ask questions about getting the vehicle checked.  One person led to another, and within a few minutes Mr. Suleyman Ayar came to talk to us.  Mr. Suleyman is about 32 years old, thin faced, with a dark complexion for a Turk and a big smile, as we had become accustomed.  We told him about our accident up the mountain and our concerns about the car.  He talked with a few associates who began to gather and they advised us to return in the morning.
We left the Toyota shop with the intention of returning the following day, but we were in a severe doubt that the trip would go beyond this point. Our trust in Kiharambee! had been shattered.  It was better to cut the trip short than to put our lives at continued risk.  That night we found a hotel to stay on the hillside overlooking the idyllic port of Fethiye.  We walked slowly from our hotel into the town, about a kilometer away.  I was still nursing a back injury I had incurred on the first days of the trip.  I had regained the ability to walk more than a few yards at a time a few days earlier and I should have been using a cane to support myself but wasn’t. Sorry, Shona! My daughter urged the use of this helpful device as soon as she knew what happened. The back injury had knocked out my femoral nerve and caused a paralysis of some of the muscles of my quadriceps.  With a wrong movement, I would collapse to the ground.  That happened three times already so I was quite cognizant of this potentiality.  The situation, a broken car, a broken neurological system, weighed heavily during that walk.  Finally we stumbled, not actually, on a restaurant after walking somewhat accidentally through an unmarked passage way between sidewalk shops.  We moved into an open area filled with fish shops and restaurants. It was a lively and festive area.  A very nice man with a very strange hair cut that made him look comically like the grandchild of Moe of the Three Stooges approached us.  He had a huge smile and welcomed us warmly. He led us to the fish market where we bought fresh fish that was filleted and brought to the restaurant to be prepared by the cook.  That night we had a very enjoyable dinner with some good wine. The friendly and helpful waiter plus the simple and very pleasant dinner helped to provide some soothing comfort for our emotional wounds.

Our waiter, with the Moe bowl cut, who warmly took care of us the night after the incident on the mountain.

The next morning we were up bright and early for our date with Toyota.  When we arrived we were stunned to find the staff waiting for us. They were, as usual, smiling, warm and eager to greet us.  Three were managers: the general manager, Ibrahim Buyukdogan, Suleyman, his first assistant, and Evren, his second assistant.  I suppose I was skeptical since I had no previous encounters with Turkish business practices outside hotels. I was prepared for a difficult and long day, anticipating they could take advantage or our obvious vulnerability and milk us dry.  The car needed the repairs as well as servicing and I was in no position to bargain.  I, once again, explained the whole story. They appreciated the fact that we were upset by the experience and the we were concerned that the care had failed us in a critical moment.   By that time the chief mechanic of Toyota had joined the group.  He was the only person who didn’t speak English so the staff translated our message.  Once all the issues were on the table, the chief mechanic went to work, methodically working on each issue.  They changed all fluids, including transmission, oil and brake.  All bearings, bushes and brakes were inspected. They were fine. The oil and diesel filters were changed, and the air filter was cleaned.  All grease points were filled. The wheels were rotated and aligned. They pulled the exhaust system, released the crimp, straightened and then remounted it. The plastic bumper in the muffler area had been crushed and torn.  They reshaped it and restored its form. The windows which had been jamming were repaired. Finally, they got to the anti-lock braking system.  I waited anxiously for an answer to our question: was there a mechanical failure the previous day. The head mechanic inspected all the brakes and looked at me as if to say, “sorry, everything is okay.”  The whole time the staff was there standing with us waiting for answers.  Earlier as lunch time came everyone walked off the job at the same time and they beckoned us to follow. They took us with them to Toyota’s cafeteria and we ate with the staff as their guests.  We remained at the shop until the close of business and every issue was addressed. As six o’clock approached all tasks were completed and they handed us the bill.  The total cost was about 700 Turkish lira or roughly $475.00.  They looked at us if we were okay with the bill.  We were,  though we felt a bit unsettled because there was no mechanical explanation for the previous day’s event.  However, on the other hand, we were elated to find out that there was no major damage.  A spare tire underneath the rear of Kiharambee! had absorbed the majority of the impact on the mountain side. All major structures were in tact.  

iPhoto shot of Toyota Staff at Fethiye: from left, Sesai Yalain (Foreman), Evren (2nd Assistant GM), Suleyman (1st Assistant GM), and Ibrahim Buyukdogan (General Manager of Toyota, Fethiye)

Everyone gathered round as we entered the final moments of our long day at the Toyota leadership including the General Manager, his two assistant managers, the chief mechanic, and three or four other staff.  They wanted our approval of what had transpired.  Had they met our expectations?  Were they cordial and hospitable? They didn’t ask these questions but their facial expressions exposed their thoughts.  Their smiles were subdued. We made it clear the experience more than met our expectations. It was fabulous. They addressed each issue methodically and efficiently. They didn’t find a mechanical reason explaining the car’s erratic behavior but they had fixed what was broken, verified the braking system worked properly, and reassured us that the vehicle was sound.  Genuine smiles of happiness emerged on everyone’s face and we moved from conversations about the car to questions about our plans to attend the World Cup.  They were all football fans.  They wanted to know our favorite teams.  Maria boasted, “Brasil!” I’m more cagey on that subject, so there was a longer discussion about who deserves to win.  We had given the head mechanic a kickabout baseball cap which he was still wearing proudly.  One of the assistant managers, Evren,  had been a goalkeeper in a professional program and juggled one of our soccer balls while the work was being done. At end we exchanged emails and vigorous hand shakes.  When we left, they stood watching us drive off, all with smiles on their faces, just as we did because of our extraordinary experience.

iPhoto shot of Sesai Yalain: Foreman (Head Mechanic) with Kickabout Baseball cap

Although we didn’t find an answer to our question about the vehicle’s behavior, we eventually would.  The event had less to do with abnormal vehicle performance and more to do with my inexperience with the vehicle.  I spoke with Paul Marsh of Footloose 4X4 on this subject.  He’s an engineer who specializes in preparing landcruisers for overland travel.  He’s also driven landcruisers on overland travel on the Capetown to Cairo trip three times, traveled to Alaska from the lower states and driven across Asia.  He reassured me that the vehicle was fine, but that I needed to drive a bit differently because of the enormous weight of the vehicle.  So from that point on I always drive in 2nd gear down hill and I always approach turns with caution never forgetting the experience on the Turkish coastal mountain. Upon leaving Fethiye we started 400 km journey along the jagged southern coastline of Turkey, not unlike the drive between Carmel and San Luis Obispo in California.  I drove, as you might imagine, with excessive care, still not 100% convinced that Kiharambee! didn’t have a fatal flaw that could be unmasked under stressful conditions. We never had an event, not even a hint of instability, though, I will admit, I have a lingering distrust.  Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, well, the shame’s all mine.
However, this is not a story about a car or my lack of experience driving the car.  It’s about my impression of Turkey.  I suppose it was the car experience more than any other that made the smiling faces of Turkish people a memorable image for me. For the two week period we traveled through Turkey, we found ourselves repeatedly uplifted by the Turkish people whom we met.  
I don’t think my historical references do much to explain why the Turks are so damn friendly and hospitable. Their history is rife with accounts that lead one to think the opposite.  Did you know that Turks have been treacherously lethal towards two ethnic groups of Turkey, the Kurds and the Armenians.  The Armenians have virtually been eliminated from Turkey after a genocidal massacre in the early 20th century and the Kurds, who linguistically and racially are distinct from the Turks, have been subjected to forced assimilation practices.  When you add up the Turkish penchant to buck the cultural values of the religion that conquered them, their hatred towards ethnic groups in their own country, and their inherently friendly, hospitable and generous personality, it’s impossible to make sense of it.  The Turks, therefore, are an imponderably enigmatic people.  This conclusion reminds me of my friend, Semih Orcan, about whom I’ve already written.  As a young man he was ferociously anti-capitalist and took up arms against his own government.  As an adult he’s a flaming capitalist who controls an entrepreneurial empire that covers the whole of Turkey and reaches widely to nearby Mediterranean countries. Go figure. Doesn’t the word “enigmatic” fit like a glove? 

Me and Semih Orcan, my one-time thin, communist radical friend who has morphed into a paunchy capitalist

Turkey wants to be part of the European Union.  They have made overtures towards the EU for decades and they are working desperately to meet the pre-requisites of the stodgy European rulers who resist the union.  The Christian West has yet to forgive Islamic Turkey for its victory over the eastern-most stronghold of Christian Europe, the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire.  Western Europe sometimes forgets that it was its own Papal inspired antipathy towards Constantinople,  the home of Orthodox Christianity, that contributed to the fatal weakening of the Byzantine Empire. Also, Western Europe may have also forgotten that if not for its short-sighted if not misguided Crusades and the ruthless behavior of Europeans who traipsed through Anatolia on their way to the Holy Land, the Ottoman Empire may have never felt the need to exist. Having traveled through many European countries recently I feel positioned to make a qualitative comment about Turkey’s candidacy as a member of the EU.  Certainly, the economy of Turkey is more viable than many of the EU’s members.  Greece and Portugal, for example, could learn a thing or two from the industrious Turks.  However, the people who have the most to gain are the Brits, who have a very hard time being friendly unless they’re drunk and who otherwise have a misplaced attitude of superiority, the Germans, who are compulsively rigid if not downright unfriendly, who sing a lot when they’re drunk but don’t necessarily get more friendly, and the French, who (yes I need to use the phrase again) have a misplaced sense of superiority and are downright mean.  I’m just picking on the big boys.  I could go on and on, but I won’t except to say, it’s lucky for Europe to have Italy as a member.  How does one get a smile from these Europeans? Answer:  Don’t waste your time.  Please don’t get too distracted by my stereotyping.  You’ll miss the message. Besides these same Europeans will counter with arguments about the absurd insincerity of smiling Americans who pretend everyone is a friend but can’t remember who in the hell they were being friendly to a moment after the encounter.  Here’s my real point:  If Europe could import 10% of the smiles, friendliness, hospitality and generosity of the Turks, Europe would indeed be a better union.  So, in the meantime, if you want to travel to the European continent, avoid the stupidly expensive cost of travel to unfriendly Europe.  Instead, if you want to feel welcome, luxuriate in an atmosphere of warmth and hospitality, good food, spectacular coastline cities and amazing archeological sites, (I almost forgot to mention Istanbul, which is unquestionably one the most eye-catching and fascinating cities in the world) by all means do a google search using “travel Turkey.”


Our last stop in Turkey, only moments before leaving for Syria.  I found a chair that fits.  It belonged to St. Peter and this was his church, located in the hillside above Antalya (ancient Antioch).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Do I Miss TV While on the Kickabout?

Do I Miss TV?

Anyone who has visited my home knows that I have a 52” LCD  Samsung screen and a superb surround sound system. Many have openly envied it and some, well, they just keep coming back to watch more.  I can hardly believe how vivid the picture is.  I prefer watching sports events on my TV to attending the event. The multiple angled camera shots, for one thing, provide intimate viewing that is impossible in real life and the video recording technology allows me to replay any part of the game, skip commercial interludes, and watch the game when and how I want. Why go to the movie theater? Netflix brings Blue Ray movies into my house for a fraction of the price of a theater ticket.  If I chose to do so,  I could watch quality programming every hour of the day for the rest of my life. And I have asked myself on the kickabout journey from the beginning:  Do I miss TV?  And the answer?  No, in the first month.  No, in the second month.  And, now, at the time of this writing, near the end of third month, still not yet. 
The thing is I’ve had a love for TV technology from the beginning, and I was there at the beginning.  My first favorite TV show was Howdy Doody and I watched it as a 5 year old on a 6” screen in fuzzy black and white.  I had no idea, nor did I care, what technological developments lay ahead.  I was fascinated for the moment and watched avidly all the way through Ed Sullivan’s presentation of the Beatles and Joe Namath’s unbelievable victory over the Baltimore Colts. Then I left the United States for nearly six years and didn’t watch any TV except for an occasional visit to the Stanley Hotel in Nairobi Kenya where I would visit every 6 months or so, to watch a replay of an NFL match.  Did I miss TV?  No.  Not really.  I felt I should but I didn’t.  I suppose, in retrospect, I would have enjoyed watching the Nixon-Frost interviews, but then a movie came out almost 40 years later which nicely summarized the whole event.  There will always be a “catch-up” opportunity in our world of technologic convenience.
In 1975 I returned from Kenya to the United States to go to medical school.  I didn’t really have too much time to watch TV in the following 15 or 20 years, but then I was used to no TV so there wasn’t much to miss. The complicating factors were that my Kenyan wife wanted to learn English and my Swahili speaking children needed to learn English.  Of course, Sesame Street was already very big and my children knew all about it within 5 minutes of arrival in the US.  It didn’t matter they did not speak a word of English.  In any case, I didn’t have a bias against TV, so we got one.  It was a 13” Emerson black and white, twice the size of my original TV.  I picked it up at a flea market near the airport in Santa Barbara. It cost 12 dollars and it worked fine. The children were very pleased with this invention they had heretofore seen little of.  They were, like their father when he first saw it,  mesmerized by the magic of this miraculous box.  It continues to astonish me that it can bring the lives of others into our home whenever we want to.  My wife, who was born and raised in Kenya and who spoke very little English, taught herself English watching the Days of our Lives and General Hospital. I think she felt that Luke and Laura were her personal friends.  She learned everything she needed to know to behave like a full fledged American citizen, which she became.  It proved itself a powerful educational tool.  
As the years passed, the time available for watching TV increased and the TV quality increased too.  I remember buying a 32” color Sony TV in the mid 1980s that dazzled everyone in the family.  We absolutely could not take our eyes off this wonderful invention.  However, I always had a concern about the TV watching, because I realized that whereas I never missed it while I lived in the bush land of East Africa, or for that matter, when I was working near Mombasa and even while I was living in Nairobi, where TV was available, I had changed.   I remember when Roots was aired.  I didn’t dare miss an episode. It blended history with my love for anything related to Africa. Now I love to watch Jack Bauer.  Twenty-four hours is spell binding.  When I saw Rome, the BBC series, I learned that TV has the ability to achieve the highest standards of artistic expression.  I religiously watch news because I feel compelled to be informed.  CNBC has become a must as I’m a serious investor. I watch as much English Premier League soccer as I can and I hardly miss a game played by Barcelona.  If the match is shown in HD, I’ll watch anybody play. Then there is a monstrous amount of fluff TV interspersed among all the programming that is relevant, compelling, inspiring or valuable.  Herein lies the next level of concern about TV watching.  The inadvertent, and more often than not, deliberate passive relationship between me and the TV means it remains “on” because it’s easier to leave it on than turn it off and then on again.
In spite of my passion for it, the TV issue gnaws at me.  I didn’t need it for the years I didn’t have it.  I didn’t even miss it.   While living in Africa everyday was an adventure.  It was all new and each experience was fresh and exciting. It didn’t matter the event.  A child could knock on my door with a bottle of milk to sell.  Somehow that would turn into an adventure. Perhaps I’d ask him how he got so many sores on his legs and then he’d tell me what life is life when you herd cattle as a 7 year old.  I marveled at the papaya trees in my back yard, full with huge fruit, that dwarf the papayas we see in American stores. Little things like that kept the uniqueness fresh and the mystery alive.  My students always had something new to reveal, even if it was as mundane as explaining why they changed their names every time they returned from a holiday.  Actually, there wasn’t much of an explanation.  They just enjoyed changing their names.  Mt. Elgon, where I lived, was world of rich red volcanic earth. Daily rain clouds darkened late in the day to pour water on our tin roof, then 30-45 minutes later moved on to a new location. Natural events never failed to amaze, just as were the brightly lit stars that filled the skies above at night.  The new language I spoke also kept things fresh.  There were new words, new expressions, new challenges to communicate that happened every day.  The personal challenges of relationships in a world where I was the odd guy out certainly kept me on my toes, especially when I chose to marry a woman from the area I was working.  That, alone, led to events, complications, disappointments, unbelievable highs, especially the birth of my African children.  There is no soap opera to compete with that.  Even Jack can’t come close. 
I began to realize that TV filled a hole created when I left my new found home and returned to the United States. TV became a technologically based proxy for life and at that moment in time, my one time love relationship with TV, became a love-hate relationship because I realized it could never be enough for me.  Life in America provided so little by comparison with my life in Africa I needed artificial reproductions of life to sustain myself.  I began to worry that others, especially my children and their children, may “need” TV for the same purpose.  It disturbs me when I see a child who would otherwise buzz about a room with insatiable curiosity, or explore the world outside the house,  perhaps work on his or her mastery of a bicycle, dribble a soccer ball, or engage in any one of a seemingly infinite number of options,  be tranquilized at the moment the TV is switched on, then watches Mulan for the 28th time. My own grandchildren do this, much to their mother’s concern. Some parents quite literally use the TV for the purpose of baby sitting.  I think it gives the parent’s quiet time except for the fact that they have to listen to the TV.
So, do I or have I missed TV while on this kickabout journey through Africa?  I’ve already answered this question, but I’ll say it again, not for a moment.  I haven’t longed for one program, one minute in front of my 52” Samsung, even one EPL game.  I find the soccer reference more surprising than I anticipated. Given that the destination of this journey is the World Cup of 2010 in South Africa, I did not anticipate that I would also not miss watching the Champions League Football matches. Most Americans can’t relate to the importance of those games but if I told an American football fan that I missed the NFL playoffs or asked them who played in the Superbowl they would be horrified.   Yet I did not see either the Superbowl or any Champiions League matches even though I had the opportunity to see them both.
I  suppose the intensity of a long venture like the challenges a traveler faces when traveling 30,000 km overland through 20 or so countries, many different cultures and many different terrains are enough to explain why our attention is directed and focused on the daily exigencies of this monstrous journey.  However, I think that something else has happened.  It’s about living in the moment.  Certainly when life demands our attention, no matter where we are or what we are doing, we are forced to live in that moment of time.  However, free time, in general, gives other options and we face other decisions.  As a retiree, when I was at home I filled that time with things I enjoyed doing or things I wanted to do.  Last summer we put in hours every day working a soccer program we ran for young aspiring athletes who wanted to get into college.  It was an engrossing venture and it took much of my time each day.  And when I wasn’t working on that project, I was often studying businesses I invest in, making daily evaluations of the economy, so that I could manage to keep up or beat the growth of the current economy.  I did this for me and all my children, managing over 10 investment accounts.  Then there is family life, the relationships with my children, their children, and friends.  Of all my daily activities, these relationships are, by far, the most important and most rewarding.  However, even with all these things to do, and more, I still had time during the day for TV.  Of course, much of it was related to my study of the economy, specific businesses and the S&P.  Much was related to soccer.  The remaining TV was familiar fluff, especially those TV dramas that make us feel, for a moment, part of the exciting world of police officers, health workers, and lawyers. There is usually time for some comical things as well.  For the life of me, I can’t even remember the name of one of theose programs, though I haven’t forgotten the classics like Perry Mason, Dr. Kildare, Ozzie and Harriet.  How many of those programs have come and gone? How many have I watched which repeat the same theme and set up the same conflict seeking the same resolution, day in, day out.  I often joke with my children that I could write any of the current TV shows because I know exactly what will happen and at what pace, long before any of it happens.  The programs are formulaic to the point that they never deviate from the formula for their genre.  The best TV might, but sometimes, the best TV doesn’t have to.  Like I say, I had an addictive relationship to Jack Bauer’s problem solving but it’s because the intensity of life as he leads it within each and every 24 hours is so extreme and unbelievable that it exceeds the fanciful and puts the viewer into a state of unbelievability that is entrancing if not simply exciting.  We need that.
And that’s the point.   Would I prefer right now, today, to be in front of my TV watching Jack Bauer perform ridiculous feats of bravery that would kill the average man 100 times in each of his 24 hour ventures?  No.  Absolutely not.  Even as I write this I am sleeping in a traditional style Borana hut in Marsabit, Kenya.  We are where few people live,  two days hard driving from Nairobi Kenya and 3 days of equally tough roads from Addis Ababa.  Today we bartered with the spice ladies of Marsabit for a few ounces of a spice they convinced me was the best spice ever created for cooking meat dishes.  These were Borana ladies who spoke only Swahili and Borana.  Closing a deal with them to buy 3 ounces of this stuff at a cost a total of 30 shillings or about 40 cents of US coin required about one hour of our time.  It was an engrossing and fascinating experience to watch the sales women and her associate sellers come together to help make a sale for this paltry amount of money. Yet, life in Africa is full of moments like this that are out-of-my-familiar box, challenge me in ways I’m not usually challenged, and bring a sense of participation that I would never get buying vegetables from the local Chinese vegetable store in San Francisco.  The lady there is so indifferent to my existence that if I said hello to her after the 100th visit to her store she might find it annoying or burdensome.  I've had the same experience at the Honduran vegetable store and the Palestinian stores, too.  Only the people at Safeway say hello and you can guess what they say to each other around the water cooler about being trained, paid and monitored to be cordial to the customers.  It doesn't come naturally.  At home, time is money, and talk is wasteful.  Here in Africa, talk is the spice of existence and human interaction is, in itself, a good reason to be alive.  So, in America, if you want to live life, don’t go to your local vegetable store, instead stay home and watch a soap opera. There people are paid to live life for you and you can participate, though vicariously, in the most intimate, intense, unimaginable, often dangerous, and frequently adventurous ways possible without having to leave the safety of your favorite sofa.   

Two nights ago we had no choice but to sleep in the middle of the African wilderness in the Marsabit game reserve.  It’s an area that used to be teeming with wildlife, but now is more likely to be teeming with camels and goats as the Gabra herders have moved into the region.  Still there wasn’t an animal to be seen that night, though we could hear the loud baying of the camels.  We were traveling the 200 km from North Horr to Marsabit in the rainiy season which is about as difficult a journey as one can make over African roads.  It’s remote land and it’s hostile to vehicles.  During our 24 hours on the road, only one other vehicle passed the same road.  That turned out to be our good fortune because we got stuck in the highly sticky and extremely mushy silt that sometimes lines the road.  A traveler must be extremely careful when driving African roads in rainy weather because these silt traps can suck you in like a predator who has caught it’s prey in a death grip.  We took a chance that night that we could complete the journey that normally requires about 6 hours of time at an average of about 20 miles per hour.  The road is horrendous and almost impossible to describe because there aren’t enough adjectives.   The pitfalls are many.  There are thousands of points where we could have been trapped at any time along our journey.  There was one point where a river could, in a flash, wash us away if our timing was bad or if our judgement to cross was wrong.  Most of the journey happened during daytime so we were able to see quite adequately where we were going and fully assess what we were passing over, be it land, rock, mud or water. However, the sun set when we were about 50 km from our destination and because that part of the road was considered to be the least problematic we took the risk that we could pass without problems.  However, I made a mistake.  I mistook the shoulder of the road as firm ground and tried to use it as footing as the other wheels passed through a water filled mud hole in the road.  The car sunk immediately and even with all the options on the magnificent 4 wheel drive Toyota Landcruiser, I couldn’t get out.  We tried for two hours that night to dig our way out, without any luck.  In the end, we decided to sleep in the tent on the roof of the car.  Since we were surrounded by mud, we had to climb to the top of the car by going through a window and pulling ourselves to the top using the roof rack.  We entered the backside of the tent and, even though we were still muddy, Maria and I slept, though anxiously that night until day break.  A strong wind and dark  clouds to the south forewarned us of another storm.  The thought that we might be stranded there for an indefinite period filled our heads. 
Sunrise outside Marsabit.  The car is mired in mud and we're about to dig it out.  Five hours later we'd succeed.




Maria pulling out dirt and packing rocks. We lifted each wheel with the Hi-Lift jack and then packed the underside with rocks.  By the end of the job we hauled hundreds of rocks, some weighing 60 to 80 pounds.



After pulling out the vehicle:  Some of the Gabra locals who helped us out.  The two young men on the right got down in the mud with me, worked the Hi-Lift jack with me (pulled from the ground, they pushed from the top), and helped pack the rocks.  They liked their reward at the end but they never asked for a thing.



After pulling out the vehicle: I hadn't eaten a meal in 24 hours but I did have a cold tusker in the fridge.  It's a nice feature of the vehicle.  I enjoyed this breakfast immensely.



The Borana hut where we recuperated over the next 4 days.  It doesn't look like much but it was cool and comfortable.  




Sunset the night after getting out of the Marsabit mud.  It was a beautiful moment.



The family of Henry Dommann.  He and his Borana wife have 7 children.  Naturally we had much in common to talk about.  Henry owns a 20 acre plot of land outside Marsabit where his wife built the Borana guest cottage where we stayed.  We met Henry days earlier in North Horr where he was working on a project for the mission.  He arrived in Kenya shortly after I left and has never left. 


We were lucky.  The clouds moved further south, the rain didn’t come and later the moonlight was enough for us to see much of the nearby landscape. At day break we were up and working to dig out mud, lift the car, pack the undersurface of the wheels with rocks, and make new efforts to get out.  We worked for four hours straight with only water to drink and some Cadbury chocolate in a jar to eat.  We had no success.  Finally the first vehicle for us to see in 24 hours, as mentioned earlier,  passed.  It was a Kenyan government vehicle filled with people going to the village of Maikona about 20 km down the road.  They had come from Marsabit.  They stopped and came to our assistance.  It required another hour of work by a few of the young, energetic guys in the vehicle and the government vehicle itself to pull us out of that mud hole.  We gave the young men who labored in the watery mud and the driver of the vehicle a handsome reward and they were on their way.  We cleaned our gear in the muddy water of the road and completed our journey to Marsabit.  There we found a place to stay which is where I’m working to conclude this discussion about whether or not I miss TV while on the kickabout.
There have been a thousand encounters and a thousand experiences which have made this journey a passage,  not just over land, but into the maelstrom of life on our planet.  It’s in the confusion and disorientation of submersion into the chaos of the unfamiliar that bring the individual to an accounting of the self and his or her relationship to the comfortable.   The sum is a memory packed time-filled experience that offers fullness, richness, beauty, as well as encounters with fear of the unknown and the physically dangerous. Not everyone can afford to do such a thing. I am grateful and blessed by good fortune.  However, when I lived in Africa many years ago I didn’t need the intensity we have experienced the last few days in order to feel tantalized, to witness the spectacular, to experience the entrancing.  In those days, the daily interactions with sellers in the market place, my fellow workers in the work place, the mundane business of making sure my household and family were secure and happy, were all I needed.  There was no TV then and there is no TV now.  I don’t really need anything more exciting or challenging in my life than a muddy road in the remote outback of Kenya, thank you, Jack Bauer. That’s about as adventurous as I’d like to be.  Anything less exciting or demanding is more than enough and it easily fills my personal need to be in-the-moment, to feel alive and welcome on our planet.  Not that I won’t catch up on Jack’s exploits once I return to the comfort of our home on Magellan Avenue in San Francisco.
The thought that my children and their children have had so much TV in their lives and will probably “need” TV to feel or experience even part of what I have experienced on this journey is not only sad, but is concerning.  The passive participation in life as a vicarious sojourner, not unlike a voyeur, speaks of a world gone empty, that offers little beyond the artificial representation of life as is digitally recreated inside highly sophisticated collections of cells, transistors, capacitors, wires and a screen.  The problem, however, is not just the confounding piece of technology that inhabits more than one room in most homes in the United States.  The fundamental problem with life in our modern world is that it has been stripped of its sweetness by the exigencies of life as we live it, by the need to meet deadlines, to make corners exactly square, to insure a dollar amount is set aside, to fill out a myriad of forms, to understand the complexities of  taxes, healthcare, political systems, economic trends, etc, etc, etc.  What is left at the end of the day?  Some time at the dinner table with a family member or two?  Maybe, but try to get even two people scheduled to fit such a plan!  And even if you manage that, what is left except for the TV to fill the void that we all feel having had so much of what can be sweet in life stripped from life’s possibilities because it doesn’t fit into the schedule or the plan.  Thankfully, I say with a touch of cynicism and a touch or regret,  we have packaged life, presented to us with all the excitement one can possibly manage.  We only have to sit back on the soft sofa of life and absorb it all in.
So, I think I have answered my own question, more than once.  I don’t miss TV at all.  It’s not that I wish it didn’t exist nor is it that I will never watch it again. I will enjoy a moment or two in front of my TV set once this journey is over.  After all, what else is there if one wishes to savor the sweetness of life’s complexities through education, travel, adventure, romance, drama, information, tragedy and more while still within the comfort of one’s home. I, nevertheless, lament the reasons for its existence and its unbelievable embrace by virtually all who come within its compelling influence.  What I lament most is what we have lost because of a world which no longer has time, patience, or belief in the value of human to human interactions.  These provide the basic foundations for family life, friendships, colleagues,  and the day-to-day chance encounters with people we may have never met.  In order to return to that way of life we must value human interactions more than we value the cost benefit analysis of taking the time to enter into the most basic of human communications: some eye contact, a smile, maybe a hello, maybe a brief exchange that takes 30 seconds from your day.  Besides, with Tivo and DVR’s everywhere Jack can wait. 

Tom