21 January - 20 February 2015
Greetings from Istanbul, Turkey.
Yesterday during a long walk in the busy Sultanahmet area a shoeshine man rushed past me swinging his supplies box vigorously behind him. As he jumped up one of the steps in the sidewalk a brush dangling from a hook on the back of his box came loose and rattled down the sidewalk loudly. The guy kept on jumping ahead, apparently oblivious to the noisy, barking brush bouncing just feet behind him.
I couldn't believe anyone could have failed to hear the loud clatter being made by his brush, but the shoeshine man apparently didn't. Moving ahead quickly I made an urgent noise and pointed to his dislodged "lost" brush. Whereupon he stopped and retrieved the brush and than began an obviously practiced routine of "thanking" me profusely, finally adding that he wanted show his gratitude by giving me a "free" shine. Declining his "offer" he refused to take "no" for an answer, insisting his gratitude required demonstration. That guy followed me nearly a block all the while begging me to let him at least brush my shoes. So transparent, I wondered how long he had been practicing that clever ruse, how he managed to dislodge the brush at just the right moment in front of a mark, how he had selected a brush that would make such a loud clatter upon hitting the sidewalk, how he would convert his "show of gratitude" into some form of revenue generation... but, then again, maybe it wasn't a scam at all! I'll never know.
Turkey has been a candidate for membership in the European Union since 1987. However, if it ever expects to become a part of that modern community, it is going to need to pay more attention to the health habits of its population. Although only slightly more prevalent than the average EU rate, smoking is tolerated everywhere, even in some indoor restaurants. Furthermore, common courtesy is overlooked in the rush to "get there" on the sidewalks. People block walkways and commonly nudge anyone who gets in their way... without any form of apology or silent "excuse me" gesture as is common in most other civilized parts of the World. As far as I can tell, pedestrians pretty much ignore the rule of law, crossing against the light at intersections even when it means impeding traffic that has the green light to proceed.
The common thoughtless pedestrian jostle must be situational because I experience gracious courtesy on the Metro trains when entering cars packed so tightly no one can move. Yesterday as I squeezed into the morass of humanity a thirty-something guy dressed as a construction worker jumped up from his seat across the packed isle and attempted to get my attention. By the time I realized he wanted to relinquish his seat to the elderly foreign gentleman another middle aged woman had plopped herself down in the briefly empty seat. The guy and I exchanged looks of exasperation while I thanked him anyway for the gesture.
Before I could think, a girl of about eighteen had zoomed up from her seat behind me and insistently urged me to sit down. Protesting aloud in English that all this commotion implied I must be a helpless old man and that if I started thinking that way, I'd never make it to a hundred. Several people in our crush took notice of the ruckus and incoherent Turkish chatter continued good naturedly for a few seconds; the gist of the babble related to old men and sitting down, with one older guy reaching over and tugging on my beard with a grin. When we arrived at my stop and the car loosened up considerably, a middle aged woman with wild red hair sprouting from her head like hot thermal geysers muscled her way to my side and whispered with a warm smile in American English: "It's not that you are so old. Turkish people just like to show special hospitality to foreign guests." In response to my silent questioning expression she added: "... because you have blue eyes."
I arrived in Istanbul from Brisbane Australia on the Red Eye flight out of Kuala Lumpur after a 19 hour layover there. As there had been little sleep during the previous 48 hours and my body complained urgently about the neglect, I'd pre-booked a hotel and arranged for them to pick me up at the airport. The Valides Sultan Hotel is the one I'd used during my previous stopover between the Iraq and Eastern Europe trips in 2013. A small boutique hotel behind the prominent Hagia Sophia (4min YouTube video) landmark, I found the $50 lodge an excellent value with few compromises. While lacking most of the amenities found in more deluxe houses, the quality of the breakfast and view of the ship traffic on the Sea of Marmara at the mouth of the Bosporus from the rooftop dining room are unmatched.
After three days of getting reacquainted with the area and on the very day King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia died, craving more elegant creature comforts I moved over to the Best Western President Hotel suggested by my Perth Australian friend, Don Pugh. The main tram line runs along the street about a hundred meters up the inclined street on which the hotel is located. At $93 this four star abode is a mixed bag. The first two rooms they assigned me would not be comfortable enough for an intended long stay. Room numbers ending in "28" are so small and poorly laid out there is no place to unpack your bag. The reception desk staff repeatedly demonstrated their confusion with the hotel's guest registration display... or worse, their inept guest relation skills. However, the WiFi works flawlessly and the sixth floor dining room with tastefully selected dining music where breakfast is served, offers panoramic views of the surrounding cityscape and the Sea of Marmara beyond. The lavish selection of items on the buffet display includes delicacies like Halva, baklava, various nuts, Turkish Delight, raw honey dripping from the comb, a big selection of cheeses and pastries, piles of fresh fruits, etc. etc.
My trusty old down vest which has kept me from freezing for nearly ten years finally had a fatal accident: the pull mechanism broke making the zipper inoperable. Sarak in Guest Relations looked at the problem and called the hotel tailor who popped down to the lobby, looked at the situation and indicated he thought it could be easily fixed. So, I bid farewell to my fluffy injured friend with the assurance a mending would soon take place and the like-new vest would soon magically reappear in my room... compliments of the hotel.
Unfortunately, the quick fix didn't last. So, the time had come to buy some new warmth. Istanbul is not only freezing, but also is a shoppers paradise and surely would be the best place in the world to get a new insulation layer. My previous confession to being a fanatical bargain hunter meant a long series of shopping forays might be required and the prospect delighted me. Imagine my chagrin when after looking at selections in only two stores the third one had EXACTLY my jacket... and in the light tan color I preferred further reduced to $35 from the already discounted $50 price still on the more popular black color selections.
Speaking of discounts, I've noticed over the years that promotional discount rates in retail stores have been creeping upwards slowly. During my youth in the 1940's a store's BIG clearance sale needed to advertise 10% discounts on stuff and then only the slow moving stock. By the time I finished high school the obligatory discount needed to be at least 20% to attract any special attention. During my early professional career one occasionally saw signs enticing buyers with: "Everything 50% off." Today, if you don't offer 70%-90% discounts on some items, you will have a hard time competing with all the other stores selling the same kind of merchandise. I can't help wondering what can be the boundary conditions: "Everything on sale at 99% off!" No store that hopes to survive can avoid offering merchandise "on sale" every single day of the year! Developing successful retail marketing strategies is not a simple science.
In a similar vein, hotel "rack rates" also have been creeping upward to the point where it no longer makes any sense to even consider them. In prior years, rack rates represented the "commissionable" retail price of a room that travel agencies offered to clients, taking a small fee (usually 10%) for the service. Today, they seem merely to be a mechanism for creating price shock so that the final "special" room rate offered to an enquiring walk-in guest will appear less outrageous.
Fresh oranges are cheap and plentiful here. Called portakals in Turkish, a freshly squeezed glass of juice is only about $1.80. As the juicing process appeared sanitary I enjoyed many 4TL glasses of the refreshing and healthy nectar during my long walks of exploration... hardly ever out of sight of a pile of the bright orange fruits waiting to be juiced.
The iconic Simit still can be found on most streets of Istanbul from pushcart venders for the traditional one lira price, but now for the first time I see some charging 1.25TL. When such an important symbol of Turkey like the 1TL Simit (recipe) is affected by inflation you know the economy is undergoing changes.
Not far from the Senator Hotel is a street which seems to be exclusively devoted to men's tailors. So, needing some new dress pants I started the shopping challenge. "Good afternoon. I need some new pants."
"Hello. Where you from?" one of many shop keepers standing at the entrance to their store replies.
"I need some wash and wear trousers; probably polyester. Do you have some in stock?" I elaborate in English.
Staring blankly at me he continues: "Where you from... come in... yes, yes."
Thinking he misunderstood my question in English I elaborated: "Do you speak English? Do you have polyester wash and wear pants?"
"You Australian? Come in. Come in." he motions, obviously not understanding much of my English and not able to deal with my "complicated" questions. So went a half dozen encounters with tailors along the street; none spoke more than a few words of tourist English. Later, with Sarak's help I wrote my simple specifications for some new pants on a slip of paper, translated into Turkish and headed back to the tailors block. This time silently, I presented my questions in writing and got a different reaction: big smiles and a nod.
Anticipating some shopping success I eagerly joined a salesman as he found my size to inspect the fabric content label. Repeating "polyester" for emphasis as the salesman showed me pants which felt like polyester, but with a label marked: "100% wool" I learned Turkish tailors deliberately mislabel export garments at the request of wholesale buyers. I never learned why they do that, but I found the mislabeling very common in the wholesale district of Istanbul where I shopped.
There are so many mosques in the old part of Istanbul that the 5 times daily call to prayer from the minarets creates a discordant din when all the muezzins perform their vocal ritual at the same time. Apparently there is no special musical talent required to participate in these frequent religious exhortations and the out of sync chores sounds more like a bunch of guys with belly aches loudly (amplified) lamenting their afflictions. Istanbul could benefit from the services of a choir director.
I wondered what exactly the guys shouted at each of the five daily performances, so I looked it up:
"God is great. Only one god. Muhammad is his prophet. Come to pray."
No great memory feat needed here, so the loud reminder is more like an alarm clock going off. Most people on the streets seem to pretty much ignore it, continuing to go about the day's business unperturbed by the urgent cacophony of entreaties. But, around the world people who object to the amplified noise, especially before sunrise have been raising their voices in opposition, including some from within the Muslim communities themselves.
At the moment the world is engulfed in a holy war with many fronts, or perhaps more accurately no one single front. While Christians have been a principle target of the murderous Jihadists, any non-believer in a territory coveted by the Muslim hoards is at risk as well. Using fear as a weapon is as old as warfare itself and predates Muhammad's conquering hoards. The current batch of Islamic radicals violently proclaim their determination to return the world to that "perfect time" defined by their prophet using the savage rules of warfare adopted by him over 1300 years ago and calculated to inspire submissive fear in the enemy.
The ancient dogmatic religious traditions embraced by Radical Militant Islam, devised for a time when civilization still struggled with means for controlling the animal passions of human beings are no longer in harmony with advances made by our evolving appreciation for the "The Rule of Law." That human invention is the very essence of modern Civilization, something I have only recently begun to more fully understand and appreciate.
I generally view anything presented by FoxNews as likely to be biased advocacy and ignore it. However, the following seems to be a collection of authentic, if one sided source materials on the subject of radical Islamic terrorist hatred of the West. The shocking 6-segment YouTube 2007 presentation entitled Radical Islam: Terror In Its Own Words aired on FoxNews prompted me to ponder the disturbing international dimensions of contemporary holy war. The Human specie has yet to significantly intellectually distance itself from our more animal like savage relatives on the ancient evolutionary tree and still suffers from primitive fears and inexcusable ignorance! .
Despite a lifetime of studying religions and their philosophical underpinnings, I must confess an embarrassing ignorance of the history of radical militant Islam. So, study of source materials available on the Internet led to some enlightening discoveries. This excellent paper entitled: "At War With Whom?" produced by The Middle East Forum in 2002 helped me understand some of the previously hidden dimensions of the religious-political upheavals rocking our contemporary world. Anyone else overwhelmed by recent developments in the reemergence of belligerent Islam and its relation to the rest of the world would do well to have a look.
I have previously noted my expectation that Islam, like Christianity, eventually will evolve through a "reformation" that purges the most extreme, anachronistic dogmas from the more widely accepted body of Islamic beliefs. There are now respected theological scholars at work who might just bring about such a dogmatic earthquake; the fundamentalist Islamic religious scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi in Pakistan for one. Given little notoriety in the West, many Muslim reformers around the world work to effect change in anachronistic elements of their religion.
However, the outcome of dramatic changes in the way Islam is practiced is bound to have "unintended consequences." This article in The Economist examines the Christian Reformation for lessons which might be relevant in any similar Islamic transformations. A provocative collection of resources from those on the political left for evaluating the militant Islamic threat is provided by an organization calling itself, Discover The Networks; which I am reading with reserved judgment. The number of attacks and their ferocity throughout the world, displayed in a single report is mind numbing. What is happening could accurately be characterized as world war III!
When evil comes wrapped in the pages of an historical holy book, only the most courageous and wise among the faithful will allow themselves to acknowledge that it must be condemned. The most extreme perversions of radical Islam today are examples of such an evil, which few Muslims dare concede. But, now more than at any other time in human history these corruptions demand the vocal attention of the fearless, thoughtful Muslim... and the compassionate patience of wise non believers. Religious beliefs evolve very slowly, but as the examples of Christianity (and others) show, they do evolve. Islam is a relatively young religion compared to the others which have had more time to adjust to the peculiarities of humanity. The transformations if they do occur, may not always move in a positive direction as the current actions of the various radical militant Islamic groups demonstrate. For a powerful, carefully researched examination of this danger see What ISIS Really Wants, an excellent backgrounder by Graeme Wood in the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic magazine, found by my Las Vegas friend, Andy.
My fourteen night stay in the President Hotel repeatedly caused the reception desk people to prod me for a firm departure date. My "I don't know." just prompted more urgent questions, eventually becoming a miner irritation. Finally, one particularly insistent receptionist convinced me to avoid such encounters all together and move over to another hotel I'd checked out for a while.
The Best Western Senator Hotel is located in a quieter part of the city near the university. After checking in I appreciated the slower pace of activity without all the wholesale shipping hustle-bustle on the sidewalks around the President's location, but missed the noticeably higher quality breakfast buffet with the spectacular sixth floor views at the President. After only five nights in the $75 Senator with unreliable Internet access during breakfast and defective television reception in the room, I decided to slink back over to the $93 President and adjust to their inflexible reception desk procedures until time to leave Istanbul. Guest Relations manager, Sarak again heaped on the VIP treatment, insuring a memorable second stay.
Still in no hurry to move on, I am studying the attractions of Tunisia. Round trip flights from Istanbul are between $300- and $350. For those keeping track of my whereabouts, expect the next missive from somewhere in North Africa.
Fred L Bellomy
PS: At the moment I am again here in the Istanbul 4star Best Western President Hotel. Tomorrow I start the flight home. After two weeks in Tunisia (Postcard pending) I flew back to Istanbul to use my accumulated American Airline frequent flier miles for a comfortable business class flight. I'm here only three nights with the last one tonight in the 5star! WOW Istanbul Hotel adjacent to the Ataturk International Airport. I chose that hotel because early planning made it appear a 9AM flight departure would be a near certainty. As it happens, my best option turned out to be a late afternoon departure with an overnight layover in London.
Though only here a few days this time, I'm still walking a lot. On one stroll down the boulevard used by the tram I again passed that amazing ice-cream scooper/performer and watched him entertain a bunch of kids. As he juggled cones and scoops of ice-cream, I remembered a tale my mother often told. She loved ice-cream cones... not the frozen cream part, just the waffle-cone itself. She delighted in retelling how anytime she got hold of a penny she would dash down to the corner grocery store and buy one of the delicious cones. At that time in her life the "cone" for serving ice-cream was still a novelty, having only been around for a few years before she was born.
This has been an exhilarating six months. The DPRK and Mongolian excursions got postponed, but I did manage to add Papua New Guinea and Tunisia to my life list and and am finishing this sojourn with my fourth circumnavigation of the globe. Interestingly, the day I left Tunisia I received an email announcing the reopening of the DPRK tours. If I live long enough, I'll try again... perhaps with a visit to Mongolia when the weather is more hospitable. FB
Istanbul 2015: My trusty old down vest finally had a fatal accident and the freezing weather demanded substantial insulation from the elements. So, out I went shopping in one of the world's best places to find quality garments at bargain prices. This "hundred dollar" down coat cost 75 TL or about $35... marked down from the already 50% off sale price.
"The emblem of the town of Istanbul was designed by Metin Edremit, winner of a contest organized by the municipal administration in 1969. The lower part of the emblem shows the Bosphorus, which separates the town into two parts and combines two continents (Europe and Asia). The city walls of the historical town are shown on each side. The famous mosques of Istanbul and their minarets, which constitute a major item in the town's tourism potential, are symbolized as they are seen in the Istanbul skyline. The seven triangles in the middle of the emblem represent the seven hills on which Istanbul was built."
|Reference photo August 2002|