Tuesday, May 27, 2008

ins and outs, ups and downs

I'm writing this on our second-last day in Istanbul. The weather has been near perfect this week: in mid-twenties, clear, with a breeze to blow off the pollution and cool our faces on steep climbs. The air smells of roses, and linden blossoms. Ideal conditions for walking around and exploring: for being Out In It.

From the window beside me I can hear "it" ... the constant hum and honk of traffic, the street sellers and people calling out to each other, the city offering an endless variety of experiences just by stepping out the door. But I don't want to step out the door! Even though tomorrow it's supposed to rain, even though I'll have plenty of time to sit and stare at a screen in Toronto. Even though blah blah blah.

Travel is all about what you take in, or can be. Each day there are the logistics of figuring out where you want to go and how you want to get there, reading up on it so you have a better appreciation of what you see. Then comes the fun part: navigating the unpredictable terrain on the way to the destination, becoming caught up in the journey before actually getting there. I love every minute of this, but my interior life clamours for attention these days; another migraine had me bedridden for a day last week, sleep claims me, until later and later each morning. Anything to stem the endless series of impressions coming in ... which, as soon as I shake off sleepiness, I seek out and welcome. Who wouldn't?

Reading over my last blog I'm struck by how much my experiences in Bergama called forth memories and associations, to the exclusion of what I was seeing and hearing.

I forgot to write about the Red Basilica, for instance, a massive ruin in the old part of Bergama. It was first a temple to Egyptian gods, then a church. Now, it's a historical-site-in progress, so that there's little information to help you navigate your way through it. You just walk around the vestiges of the building, stepping over or around deep trenches built into the earth for who- knows-what purpose, and looking up at the remains of the red brick walls. Built to be impregnably thick, these walls have been worn down by time to rounded obelisks which loom against the sky. Vegitation takes root on every possible surface. Tablets are strewn here and there, bearing scripts in Hebrew, Arabic and Greek. I found the place sinister in the most satisfying way, as dark as the Asklepion was light. It didn't surprise me to learn that it was referred to in the Biblical Book of Revelation as the home of the throne of the devil. I guess we need monuments that speak to our superstition and fear as much as to our reason and intellect.

It was good to return to Istanbul, to a really big city, and a place where we have become, at least superficially, at home. We returned with delight to our few small routines, to our favourite haunts, to the relative independence of a furnished flat. We realised that such a long trip affords the luxury of Coming Back, where most travellers have to constantly move forward, move on.

Last weekend, we went away again, this time to Bursa, a short journey by ferry and bus. On the ferry we spoke to a Turkish man who'd emigrated to the US but was here on business. He warned us, time and time again, about the unscrupulous business practices of Turkish people, especially taxi drivers, who would take every opportunity to charge an outsider an exhorbitant price.

He told us that Yalova, where we switched to the bus, was very hard hit by the earthquake in 1999. We've had the chance to meet quite a few English-speakers here, both Turkish born and some who have adopted the country as their own. Always, speaking of the earthquake brings instant, unabashed tears. In Yalova, we walked barefoot along the shore of the Sea of Marmara, on a small beach near the ferry terminal. It was a peaceful, gentle afternoon, kids paddling by the shore, new growth everywhere. I tried to conjure an image of what for me is, blessedly unimaginable: the earth suddenly heaving and opening up, destroying families and homes and livelihoods. Toronto is the site of most of my history so many of its places evoke memories for me. What is it like for the Yalovans who remember the earthquake, to walk around the streets? I wonder if those traumatic images are always around or whether they emerge just at certain moments -- overlayed, now, with almost ten years of daily life.

Bursa is a prosperous city of about a million people, set in the very hilly country at the base of the Uludag mountain. Near where we were staying, in what we decided was the "centre" of the city, is a complex of Ottoman market buildings, dating from around the 1400s. We spent hours exploring these stores and small manufacturing concerns, which mostly focus on textiles, as they have for centuries. In each building, hallways give way to hallways, all laid out around a courtyard or han. These hans are tea gardens at ground level, while on balconies above there are small factories. There are smaller hans too, where people work on sewing, or stuffing duvets. At one point, as we turned a corner, we found a group of men mostly in their sixties, playing music together on stringed instruments, with someone singing and someone gently playing a drum. We listened for a long while to what seemed a continuous piece of music and finally moved on. Every so often a little staircase led to a whole other world beneath, with little warrens of shops, all of them dripping with fabrics of various kinds.

The goods are imported these days, for the most part, and a few patterns of towels, bedding scarves and clothes seem to repeat themselves again and again. But that's part of the charm. I felt we were in Trousseau Central. Everything you needed to make a nest was here. This is the kind of stuff I would never, never have in my house: little embroidered towels with lace edging, doilies, spreads that transform your bed into a wedding cake complete with slippery icing. But taken together it had a comforting feel to it, and it spoke of a kind of graciousness that I associate with old Europe but is in fact every bit as much a part of the East as it is of the West. A kind of attention to the Good Life that I always feel just below the surface here in Turkey.

Bursa a fairly conservative town, with many of the women modestly dressed and in headscarves. Walking in groups with their peackock or pastel-coloured, ankle-length coats they looked elegant and self possessed, though I could not help thinking they must feel terribly hot.

The whole thing drew out some perverse girliness in me, and I decided I must have a tea pot, the kind you make Turkish tea in, and that it must be covered in a pattern of red roses. I'm now the proud posessor of one of these pots though I'm not sure how we're going to get it home, and I'm worried that once I get it there I'll go into a of Toronto-the-cool aesthetic reaction and hate it. But I'll cross the bridge when I come to it.

Saturday afternoon we took the cable car up the Uludag mountain. The cable car journey is in two stages and takes you up, eventually, to about 2500 metres. We were warned against trying it on the weekend, because it's a favourite family picnic spot and lineups can be long. There were no lineups to be found though ... at least, not at the first level.

After a steep climb up the first stage of the mountain we were dropped a misty and rather chilly lodge to wait for the next leg of the journey. Oh, lineups. Right. Here we saw that there were many people waiting for a cable car that can only take thirty passengers, and more and more were arriving all the time. A sign seemed to indicate we would have to wait another half hour or forty minutes for the car that goes up to the top. From the looks of the crowd, we would not get on the first one, either. Discouraged, we joined the throng of people packed into the hallway leading to the dock where you mount the cable car. I was hot, my feet hurt, and a small child behind me was continually jostling me with his elbow.

At one point I looked over at Rolf and found him standing with his hands on his hips, a fixed grin on his face. "I'm blocking." He said quietly. "This guy is not going to get past me." It was then I noticed the determined face of a smallish, older man, poking its way at various angles around Rolf's lanky figure. The chin was set determinedly, the eyes, fixed on his goal. But there was no goal. There was no cable car there, it was just a matter of getting ahead. Getting one person ahead.

The two men continued their silent struggle. We all had to wait while one car came and went. We all got on the next car. I was glad in equal measures not to be a guy, and to be there WITH a guy, and was too hot and crowded to ponder the political implications of feeling that way.

The next phase of the climb was steep, and, crowded in with this group of somewhat hostile strangers I was terrified. The car, I was sure, was over-full. The initial climb, up over the level of the trees was hesitant and halting, and it seemed inevitable that something would go wrong. I hardly breathed til I put my feet on solid ground. In the terminus at the top, which doubles as a tea house and sourvenir shop, I saw copious numbers of the little blue eyes that you find everywhere in Turkey to ward off bad luck. I wanted one, then, knowing full-well that they have not saved people here from misfortune.

I have been reading Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga. It's marred by one section I find stupidly anti semitic, but otherwise, it's a superbly detailed memoir of life in Istanbul from 1908 to 1940, a thirty year period which saw many massive and sudden changes in Turkish life. Orga's family experienced a reversal from wealth and affluence in the early part of the century to abject poverty which struck at the time of the first world war. One vignette that stays with me takes place the week Orga's father was called to serve in the army. In a last gesture of caring for his family, the father went to line up for bread, which had suddenly become scarce. He returned with a small loaf, bearing a massive scratch on his face from a woman who wanted to grab it from him. Soon afterwards, he was killed and the women of the household, married as teenagers and acquainted with little more then embroidering and hostessing, were left to manage on their own.

I thought of the breadline story when I saw the old man's eyes glaring out from behind Rolf's elbow. He was too young to have seen the first world war, but there were probably times in his life when it was vital to Get There First. More vital then we have ever known and I hope, will ever know. Did I think Rolf should give in to his pushing? Strangely enough, no.

Uludag was once thought to be the place from which the gods observed the battle of Troy.
In ancient times, people looked up at its misty peak and imagined huge Presences, always slightly obscured by mist, watching their lives below and occasionally meddling when it suited them. But to a twenty first century north American, the sights were familiar: the scrubby trees, the lichen-covered rocks, the pines. It was possible to imagine I was in BC or maybe even parts of Vermont, except when a small salamander clambered across a stone.

Actually, there were plenty of reminders we were in Turkey. Marble drinking fountains were found every so often along the trails, most of them stacked with impeccable white cloths, and surrounded by families washing themselves and their dinner ware. Huge families had set up picnic sites on either side of the road, barbecues and tea samovars on the go, women relaxing in large groups beside children sleeping like pashas on piled up cushions.

The descent was a happier experience for me. I was distracted by the fascinating image of the pine trees from above, new growth at the end of each branch a pale, livid green in contrast to last year's darker needles. It was all so regular and symmetrical, always a shock in nature, though I'm not sure why. As the cable car raised up and then plunged, passing each of its support posts, the whole group of passengers called out "ooooh" and "ahhh" and I joined in the collective sound, dissipating the knot of tension in my stomach.

We got back to Istanbul Sunday around sunset. The cab driver took us on the "scenic route" along the shore of the Golden Horn and over the Unkapi bridge. We didn't complain about the extra expense. It was so beautiful to see the city rising up on either side of us and the torquise water laid out in the centre.

We'll be saying goodbye to this place in a day or two. I've been captivated and hope to Come Back some time, to see all our favourite places again and explore new ones. In the long run, though, I'm glad to be going Home.

1 comment:

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