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).