Friday, 21 December 2012

street olympiad

Cold gray Istanbul morning.  My collar turned up against the wind.  Passing hordes of black-coated men and women heads bent against the cold. Carefully sidestepping puddles and those nasty little loose bricks and cobblestones that splatter pants legs and skirt bottoms with dirty-gray polka dots, I look up to see a young man sprinting across the busy street.  High cheek bones and narrow oblong eyes - like a young Turkmen Olympiad he lightly lays both hands atop the iron railing of the Tarlabasi Boulevard traffic island barricade and in one lithe moment vaults up and over, his lean body momentarily sideways breaking gravity. His dark-blue windbreaker flapping up behind him, then down.  He pierces the gray morning with an act of heart-rending grace, slicing through the dull gray morning with a Technicolor act of nonchalant beauty. Smiling, I gaze after him, and then continue on my way, stepping more lightly over the puddles.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Dalyan, Mediterranean Paradise

Iztuzu Beach, Dalyan nesting place for endangered Caretta Caretta turtles    

In the morning, between 8:30 and 9:30, 3 huge old Nile turtles come up to the dock on the river to be fed.  They love cheese and hard-boiled eggs.  They talk to us.  A garglely throaty hiss.  All around them schools of tiny fish and little fish and medium-size fish dart this way and that,

and across from the dock ancient Pontic tombs carved into the cliff-side loom in mystery.

As he throws pieces of egg to the turtles, my friend Ferhan wonders aloud as to why the Kings were buried there.  He says that maybe when he's ready to die he'll climb into one of the tombs and rest with the kings. 

Little boats slide down the river on their way to the sea.

The public boat to Iztuzu beach stops at the dock for me.  I climb in, take a seat at the front.  The boat slips through channels of high grasses.  Ciffs with Pontic tombs to our right, lilac-misted mountains to our left.

Tonight, back in the little town by the river, I'll eat fresh mussels stuffed by the lady across the road and watch the sunset on the river.

Monday, 6 August 2012

         Summer Fruit in Turkey    Oh the JOY     of Summer Fruit in Turkey      Oh the JOY!

Peach juice is dripping down my chin.  Down my right arm.  I stand over the kitchen sink slurping ecstatically, sucking the sweet juice from a ripe peach the size of a small melon.  A peach rosy and firm and juicy. 

The peaches have been fabulous this year.  Bigger than I've ever seen peaches.  Deeper in color and flavor.

And the cherries.  Well, it's been a bumper crop.  Dark burgundy red, almost purple cherries.  Firm and sweet and juicy with an intense flavor that screams the very essence of cherryness.  There's always a bowl chilling in my fridge.

And the melons? I am almost speechless as to the joy of melons.  But I must shout to the heavens - like liquid sunshine and honey injected into an ugly rough tan globe.  Or the ones that are hard on the outside, striated in green and yellow, and inside a pale green that flows into an apricot yellow as it nears its center.  A taste that personifies ultimate palatal delight.

And all so cheap from my local manav, greengrocer's which is run by a Kurdish family.  When I walk in one man always shouts: "Hello Madame!"  He says something in Turkish and asks how to say it in English.  I fill my backpack with fresh produce, pay the equivalent of $5, and saunter the shady back streets, through the hot sticky Istanbul  afternoon, to devour my produce at home.  In complete and utter joy

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

non-specific radiant joy on a windy istanbul morning

i step out the door of my apartment and am instantly filled with joy.  walking past Murat, the corner store owner we share "Gun aydin"s, good morning.  clothes hung on lines flap wildly in the wind that sails up from the Golden Horn: the arms of a red shirt fly about like a crazy Black Sea dancer; a purple skirt twirls.
i turn the corner and begin the ascent up the steep street; marvel at the little ground floor flats with their potted trees outside their street-level windows re-creating their village gardens, classic turkish music pours out of the open doors.
at the first intersection i spot Bunyamin, a good friend of the friends i first used to hang out with at badehane.  he sees me and walks toward me arms outspread.  he takes me in his arms in an embrace, kissing each of my cheeks.  we smile at each other and share greetings.  "Iyi misin," I ask.  are you good? he replies with the classic turkish saying, "Now that I see you, I am good."
i continue uphill and pass the "cat man."  he cares for many street cats.  always he can be seen sitting on the concrete step with a different cat in his lap, others lazing beside him drowsy in the summer sun.  today he greets me and tells me how one new baby is "hasta," sick, and indicates it's eyes.  "I make herbal tea and put.  It will be ok soon."  I nod and call him the "Kedi Melek," the cat angel.  He smiles and I go on my way.
and for no particular reason, i am filled with unutterable joy. maybe it's the warmth of the turks.   growing up in a silent house with the "Ice Queen" for a mother, the warmth and physicality of the Turks is a healing balm.  and today the world is all color and music, smiling neighbors and loving hugs.  

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Welcome to My New Neighborhood: Aynalicesme

in front of the corner market
Because of the steepness of the area, children are forever scuttling downhill chasing after a runaway ball rolling and bouncing its way down to the Golden Horn.

from my window
 In my new neighborhood children play football (soccer) ceaselessly all the summer day.  In the narrow street the older boys gather in one game, the younger in another.  Around the corner, girls fiercely kick the rubber imitation soccer ball in another match.  The families are too poor for real soccer balls, instead the children buy watermelon-designed balls from the corner market.  Walking through the dirty street, I dodge the flying watermelons, carefully try to edge my way around the darting children too intent on their game to pay any intention to the foreigner making her way up the steep backstreets. 
On my way to the other world that lays just on the other side of the boulevard at the top of the hill.

Wash flaps on the lines outside the apartments.  Street cats rummage through bags of garbage left beneath the sign that reads: Don’t throw trash here. Scarved women call across the streets to one another.  Everyone in this neighborhood knows everyone else.  It’s like living in a little village.

my new neighbors

    In the evenings women gather and sit together in     doorways adjusting their headscarves, tucking    recalcitrant strands of hair under their covering,   cracking sunflower seeds and tossing the shells  about them.

fresh cut sheep's wool drying on the corner

For the last two weeks women lay sheets on the ground and dry fresh-cut sheep wool. Where they get this wool from remains a mystery to me.  The friendly man who owns and works at the tiny corner market tried to explain it to me, but I couldn’t catch the exact drift.  On one street on my way up there was a cloth with fresh clumps of cotton drying on it.  

“Nereden?’ I asked where it came from.
“Acraba,” one of the women answered.  From my relatives.  Then she launched into a long explanation in her heavily village-accented Turkish.

Toward the top of my walk there is an old woman in a wheelchair. When it was still cold someone would push her out into a patch of sunlight for a short while.  As the days have grown hotter and sunnier, she's left to sit in her wheelchair in the shade.  Whenever I pass she sits there.  Each day her silver-gray mustache grows longer, slowly obsuring her lips.
"Merhaba," I said to her one day as our eyes met, not knowing if I'd receive a reply or not.
"Merhaba," her lips mouthed in a barely audible whisper as the mustache lifted. 

 Then for a few days,we'd greet each other each time I'd pass.

One day after our exchange of greetings, she lifted a creased index finger and motioned for me to come closer.
I wondered what it was she was about to say or ask of me.
She indicated I should get close.  I bent close to her lips.

"Saat kac," she asked me.  What time is it.

"Saat bes." I answered. It's five o'clock.

She nodded. I waited a moment but no further words were spoken.  I continued my trek up the hill.

A few hours later, making my way down the hill to my flat, we again exchanged hellos.  Again she raised her finger and motioned for me to come over to her.

"Saat kac," she again asked.
It's 8, I told her.

and so it continues.  i walk by.  we say hello.  she asks me the time.

And what does it matter to her I wonder.  What time does she hope for?  The time someone comes and rolls her back inside.  The time for a meal.  The time to die?

I wonder if our conversation might someday go beyond the time.  What stories could she tell me.  

For now, she only sits.  Her mustache growing daily. 

Thursday, 10 May 2012

May 1st, Istanbul

me, dressed in purple, marching on 1 May, international workers' day

A famous poem begins: When I am an old woman I shall start wearing purple.  I’ve never been one who likes to wait.
When my lovely young artist friend Sevil invited me to march with the Socialist/Feminist Group of Istanbul on International Workers’ Day, I immediately said “Yes.” Purple is the color of the International Women’s Movement.

The history of Workers’ Day began in 1886 at Haymarket Sq., Chicago with a peaceful mass meeting of workers.  A bomb was thrown, and the scene turned into riot and chaos.  Ultimately, 8 innocent men were hung and countless other innocents imprisoned and harassed.  Maybe then, it’s not surprising that the USA is one of the few countries that doesn’t celebrate this important international holiday.

Istanbul also has a bloody history connected to this day.  The first International Workers’ Day in the Ottoman Empire took place in Skopje (currently Macedonia) in 1909.  In Istanbul, Workers’ Day was first celebrated in 1912.  Between 1928 and 1975, all celebrations were banned.  Then on May 1, 1976, Turkish trade unions held the first mass rally in Taksim Sq, Istanbul. And in 1977 all hell broke loose. 500,000 citizens were gathered in the square when shots rang out from the Water Supply Company building.  Armoured vehicles rolled into the square, explosives were thrown into the crowd, and the crowd was hosed with pressurized water.   

In the end, 36 lay dead, 200 seriously injured. International Workers’ Day was banned.

On May 1, 2009, the unionists scored a symbolic victory.  The government gave permission to a small  group to pass through police barricades and enter Taksim Sq.  But others, gathered in the surrounding area were tear-gassed by tanks and hosed by riot police.

Then last year, 2011, the government rescinded restrictions and once again allowed open marches and protests to peacefully procede from Sishane to Taksim Sq.

This year I marched with Socialist Feminists alongside LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual, Transgender), students demanding free university tuitions, teachers for better conditions, the Confederation of of Revolutionary Workers, the Confederation of Public Sector Trade Union,and the "Muslim Anti-Capitalists."

Purple flags, rainbow flags, red flags, blue flags, green flags floated through the streets. People chanted, sang and cheered. 

The day was peaceful. Exuberant.  Without mishap.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

the Big Fat Otentatious Indian Wedding, Allahabad, India

Jumped out of the train at Allahabad.  Negotiated a fee with a bicycle rickshawji and headed to the Royal Hotel.  Once a horse stable, the "Royal" was made into a "hotel" by an Indian gent who was refused a room in a British hotel.

Outside the hotel a huge pink and white tent had been erected.  A wedding was going to take place that night.  My rickshaw driver was sure there wouldn't be a room available, but fortune smiled its gap-toothed grin and I was ushered through the stable doors to the last room in the Inn by two of the most affable young receptionists I have ever encountered.  

"Oh Mam, very lucky.  One small room left."

It was the size of ballroom.

The Royal seemed more a horse stable than hotel, but definitely had character.  The rooms and bathrooms were huge.  The ceiling rose up a good 25 feet.  The doors looked like the original stable affairs of long planks with one cross-beam. Although the bathroom was a traditional dour bucket and pitcher facility with leaky pipes and scary toilet, it was big enough to house a good-sized Arabian.

"Can I watch the wedding," I asked.

"Come Mam, come.  I will ask the groom's family."

The groom's family seemed delighted to have a foreigner bless the couple and the receptionists told me to relax as the party wouldn't start until 11pm.

The beating of drums alerted me that things were getting started at the wedding.  It was wedding season in India.  A time of the year when astrologers found propitious good-luck signs in the alignment of the stars.  All over India makeshift tents were being set up: pink and white and red and blue and orange fabric flapping in the Indian wind.

When I emerged from my room the two receptionists ran over to me: "Mam, do you want to go to wedding now?  Come we take you.  The dancing's started."

My two escorts bustled me across a dirt field to where music was blasting from stadium-like speakers.  Twelve women bearers carried huge battery-driven candelabras atop their heads.  Two drummers decked-out in green and red satin outfits beat a wild rhythm that had nothing in common with the Bollywood music blaring from the huge speakers.  But music was playing so I started to dance and one extremely eager man grabbed me and started to dance with me, then another and another and soon I was at the center of a wild orgiastic dance tomasha.  The culmination was when the bride's father parted the crowd and handed me a one hundred rupee note (the equivalent of roughly two American dollars.) Considering that my stable cost me three hundred and fifty rupees, it wasn't too bad.

Then the truck hauling the sound system started slowly driving down the street and the wild dancers and the candelabra bearers and the groom atop a big white horse all began to promenade behind.  At this point I was happy to walk alongside with my two escorts and just observe.  The sound was deafening what with the speakers designed for a rock concert and pounding of the drums to a completely different rhythm.  The truck moved so slowly I was quickly in front of it and could see it held a large electronic light pattern box forming dazzling shifting light designs.

"Ah Mam, are you hungry?  There is much good food inside the tent."
And indeed there was.  At least twenty-five different hot trays of succulent Indian food lined two long tables.  One of my two escorts got a plate and began to heap curries and masalas onto it for me.

The tent was divided into four separate areas.  There was the "kiddy" section with carnival bouncing tents; the huge dining area; the stage where two masked men in strange costumes shook hands with guests; and the special circling and lifting platform where the bride and groom twirled as they were raised above the guests and pelted with a deluge of flower petals blowing down on them from some devise above it.

The bride was a plump and unsmiling women in red and gold.  The groom a tallish grim man in white.  The guests stared at me as much as they did the bride and groom on their revolving pedestal.

At 1am the festivities ended and I made my way to my stable for a good night's sleep.

The next day I was taking a local bus to the Holy City of Ayodhya.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Bodhi Tree, Bodhgaya, India

the great great great ... grandchild of the original Bodhi tree where Budha attained enlightenment

A fair walk out of town followed by a left turn through rice paddies and fields of yellow mustard flowers takes you to Root Institute, a Buddhist retreat just outside the town where the Buddha sat under the famous Bodhi tree meditating and achieved enlightenment. In the garden of Root Institute a huge red and gold Tibetan prayer wheel spins; every full revolution a knob strikes a bell that clangs a sweet ripple of sound in a slowly ebbing rhythm.  Red, white, blue, green and yellow Tibetan prayer flags flap flap flap in the breeze that blows across the institute from the surrounding fields.  A golden Seated Buddha rests next to the mammoth prayer wheel.  Tall trees surround the center and the cottages laid out in its periphery, their leaves rustling in the wind. Dahlias, marigolds, roses, cosmos fill the grounds with color and fragrance.

Pigeons coo.  Crows caw.  Fluffy fat gray birds twitter and chirp.

There is a rule of "Silence," so every rustle of leaf, trill of bird, and clang of the prayer wheel bell can be heard distinctly.

As I was registering,  a Buddhist nun came scurrying into the office and demanded we all drop everything and follow her into the garden to celebrate the Tibetan New Year.  Everyone is summoned: maroon-draped monks, guests, ground-keepers, cooks, cleaners.  We form a semi-circle around the Buddha in the garden.  One chubby monk presents a bowl filled with what looks like wheat flour.  We each scoop up a bit in our fingers.  He chants "Suuuu..." We raise our flour-filled hands to the sky and lower them.  He chants "Suuu..." again and we repeat the action.  On the third "Suuu..." we throw the flour up into the air so that we all are covered in a fine dusting of white.  Everyone claps and cheers.  The receptionist and myself return to the office where I complete the filling out of the three forms that are requisite at all Indian places of accommodation.  Then I take my pack up to the dorm where I'll share a room that looks over rice paddies on one side and the Center on the other with five other women from around the world who are here to study Buddhist mediation.          

In the evening I go to town.  I enter the temple grounds.  Since it's the Tibetan New Year hundreds of maroon and saffron draped monks crowd the holy place.  We all circumnavigate the temple and Bodhi tree on a path lined with small Tibetan prayer wheels, spinning each wheel as we parade along.  One young monk prostrates himself every few feet.  Another wears red gloves on his hands to protect them as he scrapes his palms in an arc on the ground.  One young woman wears knee pads to protect her knees as she exuberantly hurls herself to the ground every few strides.

I circumnavigate the temple and the holy tree. Stopping here and there; observing some monks sitting cross-legged and meditating in specially designed mosquito-net tents just the perfect size and shape for cross-legged sitting meditation without the nuisance of those pesky, trance disturbing pests.  I spin prayer wheels.  I sit and meditate.  I walk around and around on the path.  Everywhere colored lights are strung.  The Tibetans call the New Year the Festival of Lights.  Monks stride around the temple like prayerful marathon walkers, bounding along with hands pressed together at chest level uttering incantations.  Other Buddhists chant and carry lighted candles.  Tourists take photos.  And on the lawn three Tibetans sit shaking green tambourines and droning Buddhist chants.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Varanasi: Death, Life and the Whole Damn Hoopla

Two minutes into my first walk along the ghats a tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed man stopped in front of me smiling and said: "Gokarna.  Kudle Beach? You were always dancing on the beach at sunset."

"Yes.  Yes, I said.

We hadn't actually met, but had been there at the same time, and seen each other. And that made us part of a family. So it came to be that I spent the day with the very sweet and lovely Frederico from Rome.

"Yesterday I went to the burning ghat," he said, "and I didn't know what to think.  I saw a dog chewing on a human arm.  It was so strange and upsetting."

We were now at the "Burning Ghat. Smoke was billowing our way.  Women grabbed their saris and held the fabric over their nose and mouths.  We walked past piles of logs, discarded marigold flowers; we side-stepped piles of cow and buffalo shit and stepped up onto the landing just above the funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges.
                                *                                     *                                 *
The air is thick with smoke.  Piles of smoldering logs cave in on themselves.  Men douse them with water from the river. Joss sticks send trails of incense  that merge with the smoke of the cremation fires.  The air reeks of cow and buffalo piss, incense, marigolds and roses.

One woman draped in a pale pink sheet lies on a bed of logs waiting for cremation.  Another woman covered in bright orange and gold wrapping, garlands of marigolds trailing over her body, rests on a palanquin by the edge of the Ganges.  Four men grab each of the poles and submerge her for the final ritual dip in the purifying water of the Holy River then pull her out. It's believed that being dipped into the holy waters of the Ganges after death brings deliverance from Moksha, the cycle of reincarnation.
One man takes her by the shoulders while another man lifts her by her feet and place her upon the pile of logs. The ornate orange and gold wrapper is removed and she lies in a green and red sari upon her funeral pyre.

The attendants adjust her body, pulling her head more center, her feet closer together; pushing an arm up against her side, pulling her torso a little more toward the middle of the pyre.

These are dead bodies that are being lifted and shifted and prodded in place over those logs.  Those women were once mothers and wives, someone's friends and confidants.  Now they're dead and about to evaporate into smoke and ash and gristle. 

Meanwhile two men with shaved heads (usually the eldest male child) walk into the Ganges and anoint themselves with the water, then wrap clean dhotis around their waists.  They are each handed a burning bundle of long twigs.  They circle the body of their loved one and when the flames get too close to their hands, a new bundle is thrust into their hands and exchanged for the burnt one.  Seven times they circle the body and finally lay a fresh bundle of burning twigs in the space between the bottom logs under the dead women.

A huge pile of logs is stacked under and on top of  the red and green saried women.  Clearly she is from a wealthy family that can afford to pay.  The other woman rests on a small stack of wood with only one thick log atop her body.  The rich woman has twenty-six men attending the cremation.  The poor one only two.

The attendant squeezes copious amounts of ghee over the rich woman's body and logs, throws handfuls of some amber-colored powder all over the logs and the body..  When the shaven-headed man lays the burning twigs below her, the dry logs quickly ignite, flames rising up.  But the poor woman's logs refuse to ignite. Over and over the attendant places more bundles of twigs below, but to no avail.  As flames consume the rich women, the poor woman lies with her pale pink shroud burnt away, revealing her slightly scorched body.

A strange scenario goes through my head.  I can hear the voice of the poor woman's soul lamenting to her husband:  "Can't you ever get anything right?  The same story all my life.  Never enough.  Always a ruppee short.  All my life there was never enough money for anything to be done properly.  And now you've even screwed up my funeral!"

I know she's dead and yet I feel this awful pain and humiliation for her.  As twenty-six men squat before the massive flames of the rich women, two men grumble to the cremation attendants about the poor woman's lack of fire as her blackened body lies exposed and vulnerable.

And as this drama plays out before the banks of the Holy Ganges River cows munch away at the wreaths of discarded marigolds.  One black goat attempts to hump a white goat.  Semi-wild pai dogs play out their alpha and submissive roles; the alpha males snarl and bark and the submissives whine and yelp.  Scrawny dirty children walk up to foreigners with their hands out asking for "Candy?"  "Money?"  Behind Frederico, myself and other onlookers to this spectacle a group of men play cards and gamble.  Water buffalo walk out of the water and up the steps of the ghat pissing yellow streams of hot piss. Young boys play cricket, the occasional "whack" when one of their flat wooden boards connects with the ball.  Men lather their hair and body, naked but for a small pair of briefs.  Boats cross the river.  Motor boats and row boats.  Women scrub clothes on the rocks.  Men swing their wet wash overhead in a arc, a loud "Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!" as the wet cloth hits the washing rock.  

A boy clangs the temple bell over and over, men beat drums, clang cymbals,speakers from the next Ghat blare recorded music.

Smoke billows from the massive flames of the rich women's cremation.  And the smoke pouring up out of the fire, the smoke blowing toward me, the smoke I'm unsuccessfully trying to filter out by holding my shawl over my mouth and nose like the Indian women, the smoke that still filters through--that smoke is the smoke of a women's burning flesh and bone and tendon and heart and spleen and brain and a million experiences.

She's dead and burning while goats copulate and street urchins beg for candy and that's just how it is.  Life ebbs and flows, dances and pirouettes, flames and sputters and coughs and ends while new life careens on its own wild course in a never-ending mad chaos.

And in India it's all out in the open, before your eyes.  It's in your nose and ears and in the dust that coats your skin.  And who knows?  Maybe Madame Bizarro and Space Baba engaged in conversation at the Happy Banana Cafe in Arambol were right--maybe we do suck up the molecules of every new place--the smoke of that burning corpse seeping into my pores.  And maybe her unrealized dreams might be manifested in my life.

And it all reminds me to LIVE LIVE LIVE because you never know when it might end.