Saturday, April 21, 2007

Discovering the "Rogue State"

Apologies for the delay in entries but travelling in underdeveloped, less modernized areas does not always lead to a reliable internet connection, nor even an internet connection at all. Since I last left you Ive wandered through the Kurdish streets of Diyarbakir, basked in the gardens of Urfa, and have then left Turkey for Syria. As always, I will start at the beginning, and will try to recollect my last Turkish experiences from this cloudy memory.

From Dogubayezit and the stoop of Mt Ararat I decided to continue south and so opted for Diyarbakir instead of Kars, a question I was pondering at the end of my last entry. Diyarbakir is considered to be the capital of what would be Kurdistan, if there was a Kurdistan, but there isn't, so instead its a gray, dusty city of no bureaucratic or political importance at all. I did not like the city, too bland, too odd; not strange, but odd. It struck me, but did not surprise me, that the only street that wasnt paved was the main one, a street that runs through the massive gates of Diyarbakir's ancient basalt walls and into the bazaar. The road was paved, and will be paved, eventually, it just wasnt at the time, and so cars skidded down the dirt road honking all the way, while the locals took seats among the concrete rubble of what used to be the road and played backgammon, sipped tea, or just gossiped the day away. The bazaar itself, upon close inspection, was a very organized affair, from appliances to furniture to clothes and shoes and scarves, and even to your friendly gun shops. Everyone could stroll by the multitude of old shops in the covered bazaar, but none, and I emphasize that none (including me), could not walk by the gun shops without at least stopping for a moment to examine the handguns in the window, or peeking their heads in at the back wall to gape over the shotguns, M16s, and everyones favorite the AK47. Much of the crowd which lingered were older Kurdish men, cloaked in their baggy Kurdish pants with their checkered keffiyehs upon their heads, and would shake their heads in regret as they left as if to say, "if only I could afford such a thing!" Across the unpaved street from the bazaar, and behind the alley of blacksmiths was the basalt old town, a maze of basalt alleyways. Even if these walls had not been made of this dark stone they would have been black with filth anyway, as garbage and mud and crust cushioned the soles of your shoes on every step. Diyarbakir, well, is a city i could not like. It was not a city without a soul, but its soul seemed to be stretched so thin that it threatened to snap. Perhaps that is why they are attempting to build a monstrous, fountain filled square in the center of the city, in order to at least ease the citys ugliness, or to distract the eyes of foreigners. So quckly and most certainly without regret I trucked on to the city of Sanliurfa.

Sanliurfa, or Urfa, is in complete contrast to a city like Diyarbakir, except that it too has a large Kurdish population. This city is blessed with the Golbasi park whose greenness, in contrast to the dusty hills surrounding it, makes it appear to be the very Garden of Eden on Earth. For Muslims a small cave in this park is where Abraham is believed to have been born, and is now surrounded by a beautiful mosque. Where the park is not filled with historic mosques whose very antiquity lends to the aura of this Eden, the grass is carved by a long stream filled with the carp. There is a legend behind this park, and especially behind the carp, but I will not get into that now, so if you must then I suggest visiting and simply typing in "Urfa". After being captivated by that magnificent park for days I took a day trip south, near the Syrian border, to the village of Harran. Harran is where Abraham and Sarah are known to have lived for about 15 years, and even today one can see the hill on which they resided and see many a ruin that stood when they still walked this earth. But Harran's most impressive sights, I thought, were the castle ruins (after Abrahams time) and the beehive houses. These Arab beehive houses are exactly like they sound, huts whose roofs look like a giant conehead. Inside the huts are now lavishly decorated for tourists, so while they are not quite original they are still enjoyable, especially for a cup of tea among the bedouin style lounges. After these houses I set out for the castle, and, not to disappoint, I was awarded with a massive thunderstorm as I arrived. I believe I have said this earlier in my blog, but will say it again anyway, there is no better way to see a ruin than during a storm. And this one was top notch. The thunder during this storm did not stop. Literally. It continually thundered above and reverberated through the damp castle walls for nearly 40 minutes. And whenever I would step into a new room, dark and dripping with the coming rain, a flash of lightning would illuminate the room, giving the experience a romantic and epic feel. It was quite fun, and did not mind the rain as I ascended to the top of this small castle to watch the webs of lightning streak across the sky and the thundering clouds crash above, and I half wondered whether the bloody Crusades had not ascended into the skies above. From Urfa I was forced to take a quick stop in Hatay, or Antakya, or Antioch, the deprived Biblical city of seemingly three names, and then took a bus the next morning into Syria. I would be lying if I said I knew what to expect.

The borders of the Middle East are nothing less than chaotic. Everyone hurries to scribble in their entry cards and then jostle forward in one huge push towards the uncaring and unmotivated border guard. After finally pushing my card and passport through I was beckoned to a side room. Walking in I saw a room filled with wide leather bound chairs whose size was so out of proportion that there only use would seem to be to make it's occupier feel horribly small, a large wooden desk, and then behind this desk a mustached Syrian officer whose body could not fill out the uniform he wore, and a cigarette in his hand. I sat down and for some time he did not acknowledge me, until finally he looked up, spread his arms and lips and offered me a "welcome to Syria!" (Ahlan wa sahlan). Soon an interpreter was brought in and thus the interrogation began. How old was I? What was my name? Where did I live? Where was my passport issued? All information that was readily available in the passport which lay open in front of him. Then they continued. What was my occupation? What did I study? How long would I be in Syria? What cities would I visit? What hotels would I stay in? Did I have any contacts in the country? These types of questions continued, were jotted down in a notebook, and soon I had been there for the better part of an hour. Next I had to wait as they made multiple photocopies of my entry card, my passport, and my visa which I had obtained prior to arrival. Finally I was sent out of the room, "ahlan wa sahlan!" and had to once again jostle the crowd to submit my information for inspection. Once I succeeded I was again motioned to the room by the guard, who was then swiftly rebuked when the leading officer told him I had already been in, and so I stood at the window as this guard attempted to ask me the same questions which had been asked, twice, in the other room, though him with almost no English and me with limited Arabic. Needless to say it was slow going, and the pressure of the crowd pushing against my lower back throbbed more and more steadily as time wore on. Finally, after again summoning the interpreter and being asked these questions for the fourth time, I was given my stamp and allowed back to the bus. Everyone else was outside waiting, and relief mixed with impatience spread across their faces as they wondered why I had taken so long. "American," I explained to them, and they nodded in understanding. Now that we had all gotten stamped at the immigration building we still had to cross the border, and at the border every passport was examined for the stamp and entry card. Everyone's was quickly handed back but mine, which was taken back to the shack. Twenty more minutes ensued as this officer chatted with someone over the phone about my passport, I was beckoned out, again asked the same questions, and then the gate swung open and we were among the blooming hills of Syria.

Syria is a backwards place. The streets are filled with calls of propaganda and hate, guns are toted nonchalantly, and the eyes of the people cloud over menacingly when they learn where you are from. It is one big terrorist training camp, and is quite frightening for an American travelling by himself. Or at least that is what the US state department would have you think! In reality Syrians are very friendly, the cities are rapidly modernizing, and the only dangerous risks involve dodging traffic to cross the street, or whenever you eat at a restaurant. My time here in Syria would have been much more enjoyable if it hadnt been the fact that by my second day in I had eaten something which had not agreed with me, and have suffered ever since. But for a quick recap of what I have done I spent three days in Aleppo traversing the fascinating souqs and smoking nargileh after nargileh while gazing up at the city's incredible citadel. In Hama I took a tour of the ruins of the Sheizar Citadel, Apamea, Musyaf, and the ever famous Crac de Chevaliers, an old crusader castle whose designs were plucked from the imaginations of every child, complete with not one but two monstrous walls, a moat, and even slits above the door to pour burning hot oil on would be invaders! From Hama I ventured out to Palmyra, and while i wasnt haggling with the locals (who repeatedly try to do nothing but cheat you) I was taking a camel ride through the pink ruins of Queen Zenobia's ancient city. Syria must have the best ruins in the world, in my opinion, and if relations weren't what they were between the west, the famous ruins of Greece and Italy would be easily trumped by these relatively unknown places.

I am now in Damascus, still recovering from this illness, but still finding a bit of energy to enjoy its historic Old City. There is clearly quite a lot of European and Byzantine influence in Damascus, and this coupled with the charms of the Omayyad Dynasty have left the world's oldest capital in a well preserved and beautiful state, preserving its identity while it also rapidly modernizes. I stay one more day here, and then Monday morning I move onto Beirut to catch a quick glimpse of perhaps the most tragic city in the world.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Fındıng the Turkısh Frontıer

From Trabzon I have ventured even farther east ın Turkey; ın fact I am about as east as you can get, and am ın a town called Dogubayezıt just 30 km away from the Iranıan border (lets hope they dont claım I had entered theır terrıtory) and ıs most known for Mt Ararat, whıch serves as a nıce backdrop for so scraggly a town. From Trabzon I was forced to catch a bus to Erzurum, where I could connect to Dogubayezıt. Immedıately after turnıng ınland from the coast I encountered my fırst mılıtary checkpoınt, yet another remınder that thıngs were not always stable ın these parts as they are now (fortunately!). From the checkpoınt we began to clımb, traversıng a road that ran rıght alongıde a small rıver whıch I do not know the name of, but above thıs rıver ın one place was an old Ottoman brıdge very sımılar to the one found ın Mostar. Sadly thıs relıc had, for some reason, been replaced by a rıckety wood brıdge alongsıde ıt (whıch looked half as sturdy as the Ottoman one), and so had fallen ınto decay, a vıctım of the moss and vınes. Stıll clımbıng, and beıng that ıt was so early ın the mornıng, I dıd not awake to the fact that I was surrounded by snow untıl the bus started to slıde around the swıtchback turns. What was I doıng? ı thought to myself. I had abandoned all my warm clothes ın Macedonıa and Greece because my orıgınal plan had been to shoot for Syrıa. But now I was seemıngly rıght back ın January! The bıggest surprıse though of thıs abundance of snow was the mountıans that ıt fell upon. In many places the snow was undısturbed; no trees, rocks, or vegetatıon of any kınd made a scar upon the sea of whıte, and so ıt was almost lıke lookıng ınto a mountaın of clouds. Indeed ın some places, far away, one could not tell where the clouds ended and the mountaıns began.

And so the landscape contınued basıcally all the way to Erzurum, where I caught a cramped bus to Dogubayezıt. Thıs journey for me was even more remarkable than the fırst leg, as the snow convered landscape seemed to turn ınto a desolate wasteland. But thıs desolatıon was not wıthout many sıgns of lıfe, as stone ruıns and small brıck vıllages sprang up out of the dırt and rock lıke weeds, often surrounded by flocks of sheep or groups of donkeys for good measure. But what has truly got me about these vıllages, these vıllages that seem so prımıtıve, where ıt seems tıme stopped centurıes ago, ıs the satellıte dıshes! The abundance of the satellıte dısh ıs the only real evıdence besıdes cars that tıme has passed here throughout the centurıes. I could go on and on about the ıronıes and the complexıtıes ınvolved ın seeıng thıs "mırage" but I wont, for your benefıt (Ive serıously spent all day laughıng and thınkıng about ıt).

Arrıvıng ın Dogubayezıt can gıve you the ımmedıate ımpressıon of beıng ın the Western frontıer durıng the race for the "Amerıcan Dream", except that the people are all so curıous. I was chased down the street by a man who led me ınto a store. I was ıncredıbly apprehensıve, and so I began to steer the conversatıon towards the "so what are you sellıng"? routıne. But after a bıt I realızed that thıs man wanted nothıng more than to hear about where I am from and where I have been. And the kıds are the same. Out of the corner of my eye I could see groups of kıds urgıng one to run up to me, and sure enough one would run up ın front, say "Hello!" and then run back smılıng to theır frıends. And then there are the others a bıt older, mostly ın theır teens, who ask you to play soccer wıth them so that they can learn where you are from and to practıce theır Englısh. Occassıonally ı do get the cold assumıng stare, and these can chıll your blood at tımes, but they are the exceptıon, not the norm.

Today I hıred a taxı to take me up to the Ishak Pasha Palace, a remarkable structure that leaves you feelıng as ıf you have just walked ınto the tales of the Arabıan nıghts yourself. I do not know much about thıs palace, so therefore I can not gıve you a hıstorıcal background untıl I have done some research, but I can tell you that the palace wıll leave you marvellıng at ıts ıntrıcately carved pıllars and doorways, ıts expansıve outdoor dınıng hall, and ıts magnıfıcent vıews. Truth be told ıt ıs lıke a fountaın of youth ın ıts own rıght, and leaves you gıddy wıth antıcıpatıon about what ıs around the next bend. The favorıte part of the palace however has to be the mosque. It ıs so quıet and somber, and you can feel ıts past pulse agaınst your temples. What really lended ıt ıts eerıe qualıty ıs the colony of pıgeons that ınhabıt ıts dome. They always knew when I was the most deep ın thought and reflectıon, for they would jolt me out of my trance wıth a vıolent, echoıng beat of theır wıngs, or a resoundıng call (kooh!kooh!) that reverberated ınto almost a soft roar, leavıng you wonderıng whether they dıdnt want to drıve the ınfıdel out of the mosque themselves!

On the descent from the palace and back to the town I agaın notıced the engagıng array of ruıns that dotted the hıllsıdes, many occupıed by nothıng more than a flcok of sheep, theır shepherd, and hıs huge shaggy sheep dog. Sımply put, lıfe here ıs sımple, unchanged, predıctable, and, well, happy.

Sadly I leave here tomorrow; at least I thınk. Needıng to keep a bıt of a schedule I should catch a bus tomorrow for Dıyarbakır, a large Kurdısh cıty to the southwest, but I feel that ıf I skıp Kars, a cıty I have heard much about and ıs to the north, then I wıll have a bıt of regret left behınd. So the decısıon remeaıns up ın the aır and ıs as predıctable as the mountaınous weather, that ıs to say, not very predıctable at all! But such ıs travel, and travel ıs choıce, no?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Stumblıng up to the Black Sea

When I last left you I was to be found ın the cıty of Selcuk, about an hour south of Izmır ın southwestern Turkey. Selcuk, a small dusty town, ıs renowned for ıts ruıns of Ephesus and St Pauls Basılıca. Whıle I dıd not have a chance to see Ephesus, a once grand Roman cıty mentıoned often ın the Bıble, I dıd vısıt the ruıns of the place where Paul and the Vırgın Mary are reported to have fled to after the crucıfızıon, and where theır follower Mary Magdalene ıs belıeved by many to have dıed. I was rather naıve about these topıcs when ı arrıved ın Selcuk, but upon fındıng thıs out, I was fascınated. Whether these are belıevable facts are not, ıts easy to belıeve them, you want to belıeve them, for they are ımportant, but even moreso to remınd yourself that you are at the gateways of a land steeped ın relıgıous hıstory and ımportance.

My orıgınal plan had been to cruıse along the southern coast of Turkey, usıng ıt more as a sprıngboard to Syrıa then anythıng else, but ın Selcuk ı fell ın love wıth the country. I can not tell why, and resolved to escape the tourıst haunts that are contınuously sprıngıng up along the west and south of the country and to explore off the beaten track ın eastern Turkey. So after two days feastıng on Selcuks hıstory and baklava I resolved to make the overland journey to the Black Sea coast and the northeastern cıty of Trabzon. In the mornıng from Selcuk I grabbed a bus to Denızlı, just a few hours east, hopıng that there would be more connectıons from there. There was, many to Konya, whıch ıs where I had wanted to break up the journey, but ı mıssed them due to the bus beıng late. Despıte ıts lateness the bus was rather enjoyable as I met two Kurdısh men who showed me what Mıddle Eastern hospıtalıty ıs all about. At fırst they could not belıeve that they had met an Amerıcan. What a novelty! And so durıng one of the many stops we made they pulled me over to the snack bar and would not let me go untıl I had chosen somethıng to eat and somethıng to drınk, whıch they hurrıedly paıd for. It was obvıous that these people, a largely suppressed mınorıty ın Turkey, dıd not have a lot of money, especıally to feed a hungry traveller lıke me, and when one of them had fıfteen kıds at home! Many ın Amerıca and even Europe would vıew thıs kınd of behavıor skeptıcally; even I dıd at fırst, and sımılar thıngs had happened ın the Balkans. But these people are good natured and kınd hearted, and although we couldnt speak to each other ın a common language, we could stıll communıcate enough to laugh and to share a polıtıcal conversatıon about the eastern Turkey terrıtorıes that Kurds belıeve are rıghtfully theırs, and whıch they faıthfully call Kurdıstan. Buses ınTurkey wıll stop anywhere on theır route. and so as we were passıng what seemed to be a ghetto these two men got off, but not wıthout both gıvıng huge bear hugs and shakıng my hand many tımes ın goodbye. I hoped that thıs area was not theır home, how deprıved ıt was! But as ıt probably was, ıt just made me even more ashamed for everythıng that I have, but most ımportantly, for everythıng that I hoard.

From Denızlı I dıscovered that there was a bus to Trabzon a few hours later, problem was that the bus rıde was a good 20 hours. But, wıthout a plan I decıded to bıte the bullet and fıgured what the hell, ıts all an adventure rıght? And so after three hours of shooıng away Turkısh youths whıch wanted to shıne my shoes, and others whıch wanted to steal my bag, and others whıch offered "good sexy 25 lıra!" I boarded the bus and made for Trabzon.

On the bus I was fortunate enough to see the great plaıns of Anatolıa before the sun had set, and what plaıns they are! Vast green rollıng hılls suddenly crash ınto a wall of mountaıns ın the dıstance, and large dıaphonous clouds speed over the countrysıde at the reıns of the wınd. It seemed to me a land of gıants, and I half wondered whether I had clımbed a beanstalk to get here. When these fertıle plaıns began to turn ınto legs of stone ıs when the sun fınally set. and so I drıfted off to sleep, wonderıng how I was goıng to make ıt on a cramped bus all nıght. After passıng through Ankara, the capıtal, at about mıdnıght, we contınued northeast towards the Black Sea. Whıle I was half awake durıng our brıef trek through the outskırts of Ankara, I dıd not see enough to justıfy a descrıptıon, only that ıt seemed a fıttıng capıtal. and upon comıng to thıs conclusıon ı succumbed to my heavy eyelıds and went back to sleep.

My fırst ımpressıon of the Black Sea was ıts grayness. I do not know what I expected to see, but ıt hadnt necessarıly been that. After all, for me the connotatıons of ıts name gıve off ıdeas of exotıcısm, mystıcısm, and adventure, but here outsıde Samsun the coast was flat and plaın, the rıvers flowed ınto ıt wıth a reluctance of a chıld fearful of gettıng hıs feet wet, and the waves dıd not crash but tumbled ınto the shore, trıppıng over themselves clumsıly. It wasnt untıl about 150 km away from Trabzon dıd the coastlıne become rugged and ınterestıng, dıd the rıvers show some lıfe, and dıd the sea have any prıde and commerce. Soon I arrıved ın Trabzon, and by fırst appearances ıt seemed that my hunt for adventure had gıven me more than I had bargaıned for.

I cannot descrıbe Trabzon. To do so would be to achıeve the lıterary heıght of whıch I am not capable of, but I dıd thınk of a game ın whıch one, anywhere ın the world can experıence Trabzon for themselves. It ıs descrıbed below.

All one really needs ıs a baseball bat. Any bat wıll do, though ıt would be wıse for ıt to be proportıonate to your heıght. Now take thıs bat out to any cıty street or square whıch ıs populated wıth a faır amount of cars, people, and busınesses. Set the head of the bat down ınto the ground, wıth the butt of ıt facıng upwards, and posıtıon your face just above ıt. It ıs crıtıcal that you do your best to keep your head stıll. Now, spın around the bat as fast as you can untıl you feel so dızzy that at any poınt you feel as ıf you should fall over. Now you may stand up (ıf you can!), and so the experıence begıns!

The stares you are receıvıng for such a bızarre spectacle are sımılar stares to what a foreıgner lıke me receıves here ın Trabzon. Do not shy away. They are only curıous. But what ıs that whıch your spınnıng head hears? Is ıt Englısh? Of course not, ıt ıs an array of Georgıan, Kurdısh, Russıan and of course Turkısh. Now transfıx your waverıng eyes at a sıgn before you, and watch how the letters dance ın the Turkısh, Russıan, Georgıan, and Azerı alphabets! Are the buildıngs really leanıng? Yes, they are. But lo, you see a McDonalds, you must be regaınıng your senses and returnıng to Amerıca! Not quıte, of course there ıs a McDonalds ın Trabzon! These people arent savages! And ıs that snow fallıng, here on the Black Sea. Of course not, ıt ıs Aprıl, and that ıs the ash from the hundreds of cıgarettes whıch pass by you ın many a mouth! And so you must contınue the cycle of spınnıng and reelıng, agaın and agaın, untıl thıs sılly lıttle game becomes quıte enjoyable, and you have learned to resıgn yourself to the Trabzon-ıc state of vertıgo at hand; and to enjoy ıt.

Thıs ıs the best descrıptıon I can offer of a cıty lıke Trabzon. It ıs a dızzyıng array of dıfferences whıch no Amerıcan can truly comprehend untıl they have vısıted thıs cıty, or those lıke ıt ın Russıa or the Cacausus. For whıle ıt ıs ın Turkey ıt ıs not Turkısh, and you feel as ıf you are on the threshold of Asıa, at the gateways of the Cacausus, and a stones throw from Russıa; whıch you are. And the cıty ıtself ıs a lıvely bazaar of colorful shops of clothıng and spıces, stıll staıned from the soot whıch was an obvıous plague of the cıty durıng the begınnıng of the Industrıal Revolutıon. I guess that ıs how I would descrıbe ıt; as ıf you have gone back ın tıme and have found yourself ın a muddy but lıvely cıty of ındustry, to whıch tıme ıs but a passıng whım.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Wındıng Down the "Authentıc" Greek Experıence

My extended stay in Athens left me frustrated and impatient, as anyone can tell by my recent entries, but Kim's arrival, and our immediate departure to the islands has taken the edge off the many changes I have experienced here in Greece. First we visited the island of Santorini, an island famous for its geography and views, but had little to offer this time of year. The town of Fira, the main town of the island, sits upon the edge of an active underwater volcano which was responsible for the biggest eruption in recorded history and, as some believe, directly responsible for the demise of Minoan culture which was so heavily based in Crete and the Aegean islands. This eruption caused the middle of the island to sink, creating the caldera, and now, in the middle of the bay, there is a small island which is the ever-growing lava dome. When we arrived in Santorini we were blessed with a clear sky but a stiff wind that bit straight through our clothes and left us tousled and cold. But that didn't stop us from enjoying a great dinner of lamb, fish, and a large jug of locally made wine (thanks Dad!), which left us optimistic about the rest of our trip together. But our enjoyment of Santorini was short-lived, as the next day felt more like a day in London or Seattle than a day in the arid Greek islands; cold, wet, and a blistering wind. So, to escape the boredom caused by the weather and the empty touristy town we headed out the next day to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades islands, and a gem of an island that has held a dear place in my memory since my recent trip there in September of 2004.

When you visit a place and it becomes special to you, whether it be because of the scenery, the food, the memories made with friends, or even a combination of the above, it becomes a place difficult to leave, but when you do, it's like you have left a part of you behind. After all, when you travel you never return whole again. And so I have felt about Naxos since myself and three friends toured the sun soaked island on scooters, nearly running out of gas among the marble mountains while trying to catch a ferry back at the main port. So, to be back now has left me wanting to recreate part of those memories, but I have come to realize that I can't, and I shouldn't. Why spoil them? But I did succumb to some temptation, and so Kim and I rented a scooter and drove to many of the areas that I had not seen on my last trip here, venturing to the beaches on the southern tip. While the sun was warm the water was not, so swimming was out of the question, but for me there is no better place than one with sand beneath your feet, a breeze in your hair, and the sound of a wave imposing its will on the nearby rocks. And so it is here, but with the majesty of stone lined fields of olive trees and vineyards, tiered in a way that accentuates their history, and even more genuinely highlighted by the cries of the sheep and the brays of the donkeys, all demonstrating that little has changed among the Naxos countryside in the past decades and centurıes. This is no more apparent than at the site of the Temple of Dmitrios, a 2500 year old temple set in the middle of a fertile valley as briefly described above. This temple was constructed by the peasants which inhabited this island as a show of thanks to the fertility Gods. And while today it is just a fraction of it's former self, and much of what remains has been painstakingly restored, it is easy to picture the sheer, simple magnificence of such a structure, and even more fantastic to understand that this temple was not built by slaves (like the Parthenon in Athens) but by the peasants themselves, who lugged the huge blocks of marble down from their mountains upon their own backs, and upon the backs of their own mules. That, to me, is true religious devotion. Being here, staring at the bleached white temple surrounded by fields of poppy flowers populated by colonies of bees and sunbathing lizards, and the wind gently twisting it's way through the rough mountains of the island, and it's hard not to feel the religious connotations that such a place offers, whether you be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, pagan, or even atheist. Beauty, and Nature, is one universal language, one common meeting ground for all.

But to get back to the temple itself, the marble used was local, and Naxos marble is perhaps the finest in the world, and was the main provider of marble used in the ruins of the Parthenon, the Temple of Poseidon, and many other ruins throughout Greece and the Aegean coastline. And while this marble has clearly been trucked away to many a destination, it is still in abundance here in Naxos. Never before have I seen a mountain that in one point is adorned with the dry vegetation and the golden rocks common for this landscape, but as clear as night and day transforms into a mountainside of sheer marble, creating the impression that the mountain is hunkered beneath a snug blanket of pure grey stone, with its busheled head peaking out for the day's last light.

It is refreshing to be back, but surreal, for I feel deep down that I will never be back again. I do not want to leave, and, apparently, the island does not want me to leave as well. The mornıng of our departure Kim and I not only woke up late for our ferry back to Athens, leaving us in a frantic state trying to pack in time for the boat, but when we had made it to the port, in time (or so we thought) for the 9:30 ferry, we discovered last night that was Greece's daylight savings (one of the few European nations to practice this), and so it was not 9:15 as we thought, but 10:15. So ıinstead the day was spent lazing along the boardwalk ın the sun, waiting for the next ferry at 6 pm. While this is as boring as it sounds, we were "privileged" enough to observe a Naxos' protest. This protest, populated heavily by the island's youth and their parents, marauded down the waterfront boulevard, some with signs tied to bamboo shoots, some indiscriminately pounding on drums, and some playing jingles upon the megaphones in their hands (jingle bells was the most common, for reasons unknown). And behind the parading youth came a train of automobiles comprised of, in no particular order: scooters, cement trucks, dump trucks, buses, hatchbacks, tractors, sedans, plows, motorcycles, and even bulldozers. But the one thing that this motley assortment did have in common was that each vehicle was laying on its horn, capping off this bizarre, unorganized band of parading misfits (and the sixth protest ı have seen in a month here ın Greece). Later on we discovered what they had been protestıng. In order to appeal to the larger cruise ships that normally flock to Santorını and Mykonos the people ın Naxos have petıtıoned for a deeper, larger port to be buılt. However a few indıvıduals, wantiıng to preserve theır way of lıfe, and for good reason, have blocked the development ın court. So ın protest of these few ındıvıduals the Naxıans took to the street, sayıng ın effect, that money speaks louder than culture.

To be honest I felt betrayed; and mıstaken. After all ı spoke up for these people and agaınst all the tourısts, callıng for tourısts to respect to other cultures before they ınvadeth theır own. But they are the ones throwıng ıt away! And so ıt was then and there that I knew for certaın that I would never be back to Greece.

A few days later I was forced to say goodbye to Kım, whıch dıdnt help my spırıts. Thankfully my passport and Syrıan vısa were ready to be pıcked up and so I dıd; and caught the fırst boat out of Athens, whıch just happened to be dırectly on my route, an ısland called Chıos off the coast of Turkey. After one cold nıght ın Chıos I have now found myself among the bare antıquells of the former Ottoman Empıre, glad to be free of Greece, but even moreso to be contınuıng on my journey.

P.S. I would love to wrıte my fırst experıences of Turkey, but a foreıgn Turkısh keyboard wıth a stubborn space bar has exhausted my patıenceth the keys, and so you wıll have to forgıve me.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Clarifying Thoughts

Looking back on my last entry, some might say I was unfair to criticize the hordes of tourists that can be found in Athens. After all, aren't I one myself? In a way, yes. But my criticism came from the realization that my problem is not with those that meet the simple definition of a tourists, but those tourists that pack their own culture in their bags along with their jeans and sunscreen. For what is to be a tourist anyway? The dictionary simply defines a tourist as: "one who travels for pleasure". While this is obviously a correct definition, it is also, most certainly, a very shallow one. What about those who make no attempt to familiarize themselves with the language or the local customs? After all, they are at the mercy of the local population, are they not? I mean really, why does someone wishing to travel for pleasure make their way out to Greece, and, most specifically Athens? It's not for the beautiful modern architecture, the clean streets, or especially the women. No, it's to see the Acropolis and the Parthenon. The Acropolis is an impressive site and one definitely worth travelling for, and my problem lays with the tourists that view the Acropolis as just another souvenir. Another photo on the wall to show your friends, "Hey, look, I've been there." Walking up to the Acropolis itself, being jostled by groups of teenagers all adorned with the same bright tote bags, carving their names into the ancient marble, or the girls more interested in the latest gossip back home, I truly questioned why they had even come. None of these people appreciated what was laid out in front of them, and instead chose to see their travels not as a humbling experience, but as a bartering chip. They saw it through the envious eyes of their friends back home, and not through the historical eyes of the cultural man, which is at it's magnificence in a monument such as the Parthenon.

When large amounts of foreign tourists descend on one place, bringing their language, their clothing, and their customary manners (or lack thereof), it becomes a place not to be viewed but to be invaded. And the effects of these camera-toting invasions are disastrous. To walk down the streets of Athens, to window shop along the boulevards, and to sip on your morning tea under a cafe umbrella is no longer a Greek trait, but a tourist one. Street names, menus, store signs, etc are spelled out in English, no longer in the beautifully challenging Greek alphabet. And for someone like me, who travels to observe a culture, not a heap of stones, these effects are depressing. After all, stones are mortal; they are at the mercy of the sun, the wind, and the rain (and now the boot of the tourist), it's the message, the lesson that is important. That is eternal. Man, and most importantly, culture, is something eternal, something to be valued, not trampled upon. But when it is trampled upon, those wishing to preserve their culture are driven out, to places yet discovered, leaving only the dirty and dishonest behind. One can not walk through the streets of Athens for more than twenty minutes without either a hand straying over your bulging pocket or a toothless man approaching you with the latest scam. It quite literally is a tourist trap; but the tourists themselves are to blame. They have driven out those who were worth meeting, worth sharing a conversation with, worth exchanging a genuine handshake and a word in their tongue, all things that made my time in Bosnia and Montenegro so special, and have only left a vacuum that has been quickly filled by the pale-skin invaders and those who prey on them.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Bitterness of Mistaken Memories

Since enjoying myself among the cliffs of Meteora, I have ventured out to Crete and have crashed back to Athens, trying hard to find the Greece of two years ago, the Greece which I loved. From Meteora I caught a train to Athens, and not wanting to waste time in Athens I headed directly to Piraeus, Athen's main port, to see what ferry I could catch, and to where. I had the option of heading out to the Cyclades that afternoon, a beautiful island chain smack dab in the middle of the Aegean, or an overnight ferry to Crete, the large island of Greece, and basically the last island you would reach until coming upon the sands of Egypt or Libya. Since I'd never been to Crete, but had been to the Cyclades, I opted for Crete. The ferry ride, all nine hours of it, was surprisingly easy as I was able to secure a corner of a couch for myself to sleep on, and did so for the majority of the trip, and when I awoke we were at the gates of the Port of Souda. Souda, and it's larger neighbor, Hania, which is where I was heading to, have seen plenty of wartime violence over the last hundred years, beginning with the Cretan revolution against the occupying Turks. This successful revolution ended with the four Great Powers: England, France, Italy, and Russia, who had anchored in the port of Souda, granting Crete their liberty from their former Ottoman rulers, and established the island as an extension of Greece. And during WWII Crete was used as a strategic air base for the Nazis, and subsequently cities like Hania, Crete's former capital, saw large amounts of shelling, some of which is still visible today. The history of the area, and the sharp, jagged rocks which pointed from the sea like teeth, gave me an initial excitement about Crete. And this excitement was not subdued when I first saw the Old Venetian port of Hania, a beautiful, peaceful harbour surrounded by ancient coral walls and inhabited by winding, brightly painted alleys.

I had arrived in the early hours of the day, 6 am to be exact, so naturally it was to be expected for the town to be somewhat dead. But this trend continued throughout the day, except for the frequent groups of construction workers redeveloping the touristy interior. And everywhere I walked I saw and heard nothing but English. Where had all the Greeks gone? The Cretans? Where was the Cretan soul I had read so much about in Kazantzakis' novels? None of it remained, and in its place stood the bright tavernas and their hawkers out front, catcalling at those who walked by ("Hello, my friend! Fresh fish!", "Hello, my friend! Sexy donuts!").

Discouraged by Hania's lack of character I took a bus the next day to Rethymno, hoping to find Hania the exception, not the norm. I checked into the hostel and walked around the town, initially encouraged by the heavy traffic and occasional Greek that I heard. But quickly I realized that Rethymno was even worse than Hania. At least Hania had a few bars I could attempt to drown my boredom in, but Rethymno had none, only a gelato stand ("Hello my friend!) surrounded by a ghost town. Already frustrated I returned to the hostel, not knowing how I could survive on Crete for a week, which had been my initial plan. Furthermore I grew increasingly more angry when I noticed that the strap on my backpack had a serious fray, and was threatening to snap in the next few days. So doing what any angry traveller would have done, I turned my back on Crete and grabbed my bag, left the hostel, took the next bus back to Hania, and the next boat (another overnight ferry) back to Athens.

I knew that two overnight ferries in three nights would only increase my misery, but I had no idea what I was in store for. As soon as we had left Souda, screaming winds and high, choppy seas, made our cruise liner boat feel like a dinghy, and not two hours into the boat ride did I notice that all of the women and children, and many of the men as well, had fled to the toilets, emptying their tumultuous stomachs all over the toilets, the seats, and even the counter tops. I can't explain how disgusted I was with this bizarre spectacle, and it only increased my frustrations, and left my bladder moaning in pain because of my reluctance to enter the soiled restrooms. And so it went all night, the boat rocking back and forth, slamming against the huge seas, and the sound of belching and the sour stench of vomit emanating from the nearby toilets.

I have never been so relieved to have placed my two feet upon dry land, and the littered streets and dilapidated buildings of Piraeus seemed like a paradise! From the port I caught the metro back to Athens and easily found a hostel who recommended a shoe-repair shop for my failing backpack, and after I was able to shower off the memories of last night's trip, my spirits were as high as could be, seeing as I hadn't slept in two days. Having the afternoon to kill, I discovered that the Acropolis was free on Sundays, and so I battled the crowds of Italian and American tourists ("We're on Spring Break! He He!") to catch a glimpse of my favorite sight of Athens. Surprisingly, my favorite sight is not the Acropolis as many would assume, how could it be? When I first visited it just after the Olympics it was covered in scaffolding, and that same scaffolding remains today. No, my favorite sight is Lykavittos Hill, and the Acropolis offers fantastic views of this conical mound of dirt, looking like a crooked cap placed snugly on the crown of Athens.

But no sooner had I leaned against the walls of the Acropolis, gazing out at my hill, did the winds pick up and send the caps of tourists and hair of the young females ("OmiGod! You cannot take a picture of me now! What will they think on facebook?!!") flying through the air. Apparently the stiff winds of the Aegean had followed me here to the Parthenon, and I descended the hill to escape their strength and the ancient dust they threw into eyes and ears. Because of the winds I had not spent much time upon the Acropolis, and found myself strolling along the pedestrian quarters between Monastiraki and Syntagma districts, when a small, bald-headed Greek man stopped me, pointing to his wrist, presumably asking for the time. I obligingly showed him my watch and began to move on when he suddenly shot, in English "So where you from?" After telling him he continued, "Ah, I have uncle in Seattle! Live thirty-five years in Seattle! Very beautiful! My name is Nikolas. Come! Come! I must show you picture he send me!" And he grabbed my arm and led me towards a square filled with small cafes and restaurants. To those back home, this would already send a shock of fear into you, but in the Balkans, especially in Yugoslavia, this kind of hospitality is most certainly genuine, and their close nature does not make it taboo for a man to lead another man by the arm. In fact this was quite normal, and so I had gotten used to it. But this was not Yugoslavia I had to remind myself, this was Greece, ...and most importantly... this was Athens. Leading me into a bar tucked away in the shade of a courtyard, he said "This is my cafe/bar. Come! Have a seat! You want drink! Bartender one beer!" "No no!" I protested, becoming increasingly apprehensive, and so I lied. "I don't drink alcohol." But without hesitating the bartender poured me a glass of Fanta, and started a conversation with me. Soon I had noticed that the man had disappeared, and in his place came a girl who took a seat next to me, also seemingly very eager to slip into the conversation. With my guard still up, but with no reason to leave, we chatted about hometowns and travels, when the girl next to me suddenly changed the topic. "So, how bout drink? For us? Just one little drink?" This was what I had been afraid of, and red lights and sirens started erupting in my head like a circus. "A drink? For you? Why would I do that?" Checking out of the corner of my eye I saw two guys who had taken a subtle interest in where this was going, and immediately I was sure that I was about to get stuck deep in a scam. I had heard about these scams from other travellers, but they had all involved other cities like Bratislava or Budapest; I hadn't heard much about Athens. But how this scam was supposed to unfold was when I'd finished having a good time with these friendly girls I'd ask for my bill in a drunken haze, only to find out that a 30 or 40 euro bill has been ballooned to a 400 or 500 euro bill! But the bill doesn't come alone, but is couriered by two or three intimidating guys who are willing to push the limits to collect. So...back to where I was, I asked her "A drink? For you two? Why?" and was plotting my escape at the moment as well. But without letting her answer I said with a smile to ease the rising tensions, "Oh what the hell! Why not? Two shots!" The two girls were all smiles, and as the one behind the bar bent down to grab the bottle of liquor, and the two guys had resumed sipping their drinks, I stood up and bolted out the door! Looking behind me I saw that the two guys were making an attempt to follow me, but when I had reached the square, which was filled with enough people, I told them I would call the police, and pointed to a nearby pay phone to prove my point. Getting my point, they turned around and went back to their bar, leaving me both filled with adrenaline but also fuming at the same time. Who says that Western Europe is safer than the Eastern European blocks?

Besides that experience, I've found Athens to be increasingly depressing and frustrating, and filled with ten-folds more tourists than the last time I had come. I hate it, I despise it, because with their fat wallets and fanny packs they bring thieves like the ones I had met, pickpockets and scammers of all kinds, and drive local prices through the roof, leaving a traveller like me chewing his lip in a look of bitter frustration. And what's more frustrating is how long I will be stuck here in Athens. To continue my journey through Turkey and into Syria I had to obtain a Syrian visa, and the only way to do that was to mail my passport back to the United States, and I don't know when it will return, if ever. Could be a week, two weeks, three, or even four. And for that whole time I shall have to bear witness to the painful transformations which have taken Greece by storm, leaving me with my fading memories of a Greece gone dry.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Among the Rugged and the Holy

After enjoying the cosmopolitan Salonika (Thessaloniki) for five days, I headed inland to the town of Kalambaka and the famous site of Meteora. Kalambaka is a semi-arid town that quickly reminded me of a typical small town in Eastern Washington, small and secluded yet big enough to accommodate a large amount of tourists (and filled with fast food). Behind this town, which sits on a flat plain, erupts the rocks of Meteora and the monasteries on them. After the fall of the Byzantine Empire the Ottomans continued to sweep through Greece like a wave, and in order to preserve their hermit status and avoid the bloodshed the hermits that inhabited the many caves of the area built their monasteries upon these huge dramatic heaps of stone, knowing the Turks would not bother expend the effort to disturb them. At the time the monasteries were only accessible by removable ladders or compartments that could be pulled up by a system of ropes and pulleys, but nowadays beautiful slate walkways greet the tourists that visit this place. Waking up early so as not to be rushed in seeing each one, I rented a scooter and zoomed up the switchback roads to the tops of these dramatic rocks. Nowadays two of the monasteries are now inhabited by nuns, and it was one of these that I first visited. As I walked in I couldn't help but laugh at how unexpected a nunnery it was. A ticket booth greeted my arrival and inside was a nun jabbering away on a cellphone. Without interrupting her conversation whatsoever she held the phone between her shoulder and her ear and issued me my ticket and took my money. I walked through the entry and came upon a courtyard that looked upon the rocks, the town below, and several other monasteries within sight. Going back inside I walked through the monastery, having to hunch over the entire time, and found a small church. The church was ordained with frescoes depicting the Roman persecution, torture, and slaughter of early Christians, and was lined with pews facing the small but lavishly decorated altar. No matter what religion you are, or even if you and God have parted ways long ago, you can't help put issue forth a small prayer of thanks for the opportunity to find yourself in such a beautiful, holy, and inaccessible site.

Hopping back on my scooter I continued up the hills, finally reaching the top of one of the rocks where a huge monastery was located, it's walls seemingly an extension of the rocks they sit upon. Unfortunately this one was closed (each monastery keeps completely different hours, making it nearly impossible to see each one on any day of the year), but I was lucky enough to watch their more modern form of transporting cargo between the road and the buildings, by cable car. And so the day continued with me flying from monastery to monastery upon a thin paved road on top of a giant cliff, dodging other cars and the occasional bus, and always increasing the throttle just a bit more. One monastery I came upon looked oddly familiar and I wondered immediately whether I hadn't seen it in some picture or another. The old rope and pulley system particularly caught my eye, and it wasn't until I entered that I found out that this monastery was in the James Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. The man who told me was a "monk-in-training" who spoke no English but whose mother tongue was conveniently Spanish. After talking with him about America and my family I joined him with another monk in his cell where he offered me some Turkish delight (the favorite candy in these parts) and his opinions on religion, which I hastily tried to understand through his speedy Spanish.

After excusing myself from the monastery I headed out to a small alcove paved over where I could park my scooter and hike out to the very precipice of the rocks, and, when I had finally worked up the courage, I dangled my feet and stared out over the other shapely rock formations, the town below, and the mountains beyond, watching the sun slip innocently behind them, and thus ending yet another day of my journey.