Friday, April 30, 2010

Settling in England

April 30 - First week in England.

My flight from Turkey was uneventful; both Heathrow and the freeway to Milton-Keynes were uncrowded and stress-free. I was also treated to three days of beautiful sunny weather before more typical April weather set in on Thursday. I spent Monday and Tuesday in Milton-Keynes getting settled in the room I am renting from Joy, learning my way around M-K, and meeting with Lynne about the project (it will be another adventure in itself, as we work to connect our similar-yet-different approaches to metaphors and stories). Joy's house is quite nice, with a lovely back yard that includes a glassed-in sun porch overlooking a large koi pond (but alas, no place to set up a BBQ or eat a meal during nice weather. As the weather turns summery I will miss our wonderful patio in Portland more and more.)

Milton-Keynes is an odd town, a New Jersey style "New Town" built around several centuries-old villages, in a way that the existing villages are incorporated into the fabric of the town - yet the city center is itself a huge covered shopping mall. There is a network of bicycle, horse, and pedestrian paths that in principle provides a way to get anywhere in the city with very little interaction with automobiles. My first two forays were frustrating - the paths wind around in a way that is hard to follow, and the signs are often unhelpful - for example, when the path crosses a named surface street they don't tell you the name of the street, and the signs often point toward a location that is meaningful only if you know the city well (and is either not shown on the map or difficult to find). On each of my first three exploratory trips, one on foot, the other two on a bicycle Joy is providing for me, I ended up going at least half again the actual distance because of detours and double-backs. The fourth trip, walking to the train station for the trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, was more successful, since I finally realized that navigation is by village names, and a sign informs you each time you cross into a new village. The villages are roughly square, about 1 km to the side, separated by arterials that run more or less straight, from northwest to southeast ("verticals") and southwest to northeast (horizontals). Once I figured this out, I realized I need to write down, not a sequence of street names, but rather a sequence of neighborhood names to guide me on my trips. So the walk to the train station went smoothly and took a bit under an hour. Three or more trips around town and I will probably get it figured out.

I also realized that lacking a map of England (we have one that LaJean was supposed to bring, and I haven't found a bookstore yet from which I can buy one) cost me some money on my trip to Stratford. The train I took passes through Coventry to Birmingham, where I changed to a milk train back to Stratford. I did not realize how close Stratford is to Coventry. Since I want to visit Kenilworth Castle on the way back, and it is between Stratford and Coventry, I will take a bus to Kenilworth, park my luggage in the castle's cloak room (I hope they have one!) then take another bus on to Coventry, thus writing off the first leg of my return ticket.

The first couple of days in Stratford have been very interesting. I am staying in a very comfortable, although smallish, room in the Penryn House B&B, close to a mile walk from the center of town. Again because they don't bother putting signs on the main streets, getting to the B&B required a combination of guesswork, hope, and a bit of doubling back. The landlady compensated by providing me tea and some very nice cakes when I checked in. After checking in I toured Anne Hathaway's Cottage, then walked back into town and toured a couple of other houses associated with Shakespeare, including the house where he was born. Unfortunately they do not allow photographs inside, although they don't put up many signs about it and I did take one before a guard told me not to take any more. They also do not provide any really good photos of the interiors that you can buy - or I would have bought some. All of the houses are interesting - dark wood, and constant reminders of how much shorter people were in those days. I enjoyed all of them. I also enjoyed, yesterday and today, stopping in at a couple of 400 year old pubs - the Windmill, licensed in 1600, is the oldest in Stratford that has been in continuous operation. I do have a picture of its interior, and a picture of me in another pub, in an even older building.

On Wednesday night I saw a superb performance of King Lear. The actor who played Lear was spell-binding. Regan and Goneril were also very well-done; both came across with exactly the right sort of oily seductiveness. The performance got a warm but not enthusiastic ovation, but in Portland it would have earned a standing ovation. Different standards of comparison. I was less than enthusiastic about the staging - more of the time-shifting, with most (but not all) the costumes World War I vintage, and the backdrop based on a run-down factory or metal shop, with a bank of broken windows in the background, steel girders, and industrial-grade florescent lights. I hope that fad runs its course and they get back to staging Shakespeare in the eras in which the action supposedly happens. Although it wasn't as distracting as some I've seen recently, like one we saw in Ashland a couple of years ago, where the "Duke this" and "King" and other royalty titles, and the threats of execution, positively jarred with the 1920s jazz era setting.

Today I toured Warwick Castle. It was fun, but a bit much - they have converted it into a theme park, with costumed actors everywhere, and multi-media presentations. The cost of admission reflected that - ordinarily 19 pounds, 13 for me with a senior discount, plus 8 more for the dungeon. Sort of a continual Renaissance Faire. I most enjoyed the unconstrained, unguided, and mostly actor free tour of the family quarters and ceremonial halls. One actor, in the ceremonial hall, I did enjoy chatting with; he said he was one of the descendants of the family. A 1920s "weekend party" setup was kind of fun. (Complete with some dummies in period dress and some live actors playing people who might have been invited to a weekend party in the 1920s.) The castle was actually the family home until the 1970s when it was sold, probably because it was getting far too expensive to keep up. They did allow pictures here - the fellow I talked with in the ceremonial hall said they had put coatings on everything to protect them from light and flashbulbs. But the dungeon tour, which cost me an extra 8 pounds, was just a gussied-up Halloween "house of horrors" show, with a Black Plague room, a torture room, a court room, and an execution chamber. I think it might have been fun but they crammed 20 of us into one tour, so unless you were standing in front you couldn't see or experience much. I considered it mostly a waste of $12 and 40 minutes of my time. I really prefer seeing these places at my own pace, guided by my own imagination. It was no surprise when I later learned that the castle is operated by a commercial entertainment company - it _is_ a theme park.
It started raining about the time I finished the tour - fortunately I came equipped with my portable umbrella. It was too late to visit Kenilworth, so I decided to head back to Stratford. In the town square was a cart selling curry - they were out of rice so gave me curried chicken on a baked potato, something I'd never heard of before. It was quite good, more like a slightly curry flavored chicken stew than anything, but warming in the drizzle.
Eric Jensen came to meet me for dinner and the first 2/3 of Romeo and Juliet, before he left to catch a series of trains back home. We enjoyed a nice visit; he and his partner Sam will meet me in London on Sunday. He was in the vicinity to interview for a job in Sociology at U. of Warwick, apparently UK's 2nd ranked Sociology dept. - he later told me he got the job, which is no surprise. He is doing extremely well.
I was not as impressed by Romeo and Juliet as I was by Lear - none of the actors seemed as dynamic, or as convincing; the two dukes seemed almost stiff. The nurse, played by an African-Brit with creole mannerisms, was great, and Mercutio (Romeo's friend who gets stabbed by Juliet's cousin Tybalt in a rather unsportsmanlike and opportunistic way) was great. Otherwise, many of the actors seemed to be just reading their lines, except for Romeo, who over-acted. The director put most of the cast in period costume, but had Romeo and Juliet in modern casual dress and the Capulets in black leather with high-tech switchblades like the heavies in a modern fantasy-punk movie. That was a jarring note: Tybalt came across as a treacherous, villainous bully, a person Juliet would not likely have loved enough to be emotionally torn by his death, and the feud seemed more like "victims vs. oppressors" than the more morally equal balance that, in my view, is necessary for the play to work. The director also used bursts of fire, to symbolize passion I suppose, but that also gave it rather too much of a flavor of cheap hollywood special effects, and actually distracted from the passion the language and the acting is supposed to project - perhaps that is part of the reason that the portrayals of both Romeo and Juliet seemed at once overdone and strangely tepid to me. Having Romeo wheel around stage on a modern bicycle was, really, a bit much. I enjoyed the evening but I have seen many versions of the play that seemed more convincing. In sum, King Lear was one of the best versions I've seen, but Romeo and Juliet was mediocre. They bused in a ton of high school students to see Romeo and Juliet, though, so it got a much more enthusiastic response than Lear got the night before.

April 30

Today I pulled my stuff together and took a bus to Kenilworth - taking my time, since I had been told by many people that there isn't much there; a judgment that turned out to be quite erroneous - I spent about 2.5 hours there and could happily have spent 4. Even in the town itself people seemed quite lukewarm toward the castle - and on one of the few occasions in my experience, I got very poor help from a librarian (the library doubles as tourist information center), who told me rather vaguely to just follow the road around, leaving out the crucial detail of taking a right turn a few hundred yards down the hill. I ended up in an obvious residential area, accosted a woman delivering pamphlets, who had to think for a minute and consult her own map, doubled back, found the turn I had missed, with no "Castle Road" sign. I found the sign another hundred yards beyond the intersection, in the middle of a long block. Grump! The British are really challenged about road signs.

Once I finally reached the castle, I was immediately impressed. The castle walls are mostly gone, with just a few badly ruined stretches and the lower half of the entry towers. The stables are intact, and now house a tea shop and exhibition hall with a really good display on the history of the castle. The central hall, used until recently as a residence, is still intact, and has had exhibits of how it looked when Elizabeth I visited. The original castle is in ruins - very picturesque ruins, where I spent the greater part of an hour taking photos and understanding why Sir Walter Scott was impressed enough to write a novel about it. (Got to re-read that book!) To me, the way it was romanticized in literature adds greatly to the interest and value in visiting the place. Not long after I arrived it started the same sporadic drip that it did yesterday afternoon, although not until near the end of the visit did it rain enough to justify putting up my umbrella. The clouds actually helped evoke the historical mood of the place. It dates back to the 11th century, has figured centrally in much of English history since. It underwent two long sieges, each time yielding only after the point of near starvation had been reached; figured in the romance between Robert Dudley and Elizabeth, was finally captured, used for a while, then rendered militarily useless by Cromwell's forces. There were only a few other visitors, so it was easy to let my own imagination run. I am familiar with most of the history, but it would be fun to reread it and visit the place again.

It is interesting and a bit dismaying that so many people told me there isn't much there. If I had only one day to spend in the area, knowing what I know now, I would definitely spend it at Kenilworth rather than Warwick, Kenilworth where there is only a couple of tents to interfere with your own free imagination. I guess on the other hand if I were touring England with a couple of restive pre-teens with little knowledge of or interest in history, I might opt for the vastly more "entertaining" theme park to get them out of my hair for a day or so.

I have been ruminating since before I left Turkey about history, in the light of the various historical places I have visited. In Asia, especially Nepal and India, the history I saw has very little to do with me or my culture - only the peripheral relationship from the introduction of watered-down Buddhism and Hinduism during the last half of the last century. It was interesting but did not really speak to my own life or culture. In England, every time I have visited I have felt the history strongly as _my_ history, history that contributed to what my culture is and who I am. In Turkey it was an interesting in-between. Most of the events, including the battlefields and castles, are part of the Story of the West, dating from well before the Greeks and extending through to the eventual conquest of Byzantium by the Ottoman Empire. But the story is told from the Ottoman perspective: Battles I grew up learning as tragic defeats are perceived as glorious victories. Even the historic Christian churches, some dating to only a century or two after Christ, were converted to Mosques. It is vaguely disorienting - in a positive way. I felt my perspective repeatedly, continuously, wrenched. That also happened to a lesser extent in other Asian countries, but the Hindu and Animist cultures, in particular, are so very different, so very alien that it did not have the kind of personal immediacy it had in the Greek / Roman / Byzantine / Ottoman empire, with its final layering of (still not fully realized) secularism cultivated by Ataturk (whose image is still everywhere in Istanbul). Don't get me wrong - I am no fan of the crusaders, and consider most of the crusades as little removed from genocide and pillage. But I still think of the fall of Constantinople as a tragic ending, and it is very enlightening to spend 3 weeks visiting historical sites in a country with a shared history but radically different perspective - the victory of Islam as a glorious beginning. (And indeed, considering what Muslim scholars and mathematicians accomplished while Europeans were struggling vainly to hold on to some shadow of the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, it _was_ a beginning of a glorious age.) It has actually contributed to greater appreciation of England with our shared history.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

April 25, Turkey - the extra week.

It took me much of the day Sunday to get over the shock of having our plans for Ireland so radically revised - at least three hours of that was spent canceling reservations for cars, rooms, and the ferry from Dublin to Holyhead; the rest I spent finishing up organizing and uploading pictures, and then finishing a book about political talk that proved quite interesting. It was actually a pretty nice day but I didn't feel like going out.

Monday was a promising day and I knew I needed to get out of the apartment, so I took a ferry to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes' Islands, off the Asian coast of Istanbul. They allow no motorized vehicles other than emergency vehicles, so it is a walker's dream. The ferry ride was nice, and might have been quite scenic, except for the dense mist, not quite fog, that kept the visibility down to a couple of miles and prevented the day from quite realizing its potential.

There is a smallish mostly tourist-oriented town, lots of cafes and doo-dad shops. I had lunch in one of these - ordered mussels and a mixed salad. The salad was excellent; the mussels consisted of 12 big globs of batter, arranged 3 each on 4 kabob spits and deep-fried; upon close investigation each held a mussel about the size of a navy bean. I asked for the bill and the waiter brought a huge mug of beer - I didn't think that a good way to start a vigorous hike so insisted on the bill.

The island has a large hill with two peaks separated by a ridge. I walked up the highest one first; there is a restaurant and viewing area on top - again, its potential was restricted by the continuing mists. Other than that it was quite a pleasant day for a walk - cool enough that walking vigorously up a steep hill did not overheat me, but warm enough to sit at the top for a while, eat my cimit, and gaze at what view there was. Then I walked back down, crossed the saddle, and took a fork in the road that led me around the crown of the other hilltop. My original plan was to stay until 5, but I realized I was going to be back in town well in time for the 3:00 ferry, and I didn't have much inclination to spend two hours messing around tourist shops, so I decided on the ferry. I had a good vigorous walk, almost two full hours, and it was altogether a pleasant day, that did much to restore my mood and help me regain equilibrium.

During the walk I decided I had gone overboard in cancelling reservations, so when I got back I e-mailed the places in Stratford and London to reinstate the reservations as singles. I will probably schedule a visit to Wales for later, maybe in late May.

Monday it was raining when I got up, but I had already decided to spend the day revising an article I submitted to Metaphor and Symbol back in January. The rain stopped well before noon so I went out to get some stuff from the supermarket - I hoped to get some coffee from Starbucks' (the coffee packages in the market are labeled only in Turkish so it is impossible to know what I'm getting). Unfortunately, Starbuck's carries only whole bean, and (language barrier again) I didn't know how to ask if they could grind it. I may end up just buying a small packet of the ground coffee; at least I can use it to keep the too-finely ground coffee I brought with me from clogging my portable gold filter. (I am really tired of powdered coffee.)

April 23

Yesterday and today were both beautiful days. Yesterday I took a long walk back to the castle and took a couple more pictures, then circled back to the apartment by a more direct route. It was probably a total of about 12 miles but it felt really good to get out and do some vigorous walking, and I felt I had a much better feeling about Istanbul. In the evening I went to a restaurant I had noticed on the street on the way home, and had a wonderful salad and the best meat kabobs I have had since I've been in Turkey. Done medium (still very juicy) and perfectly seasoned. I think I will go back to the same place tonight.

This morning I had breakfast and headed out, back to the Topkapi Palace area to take some more photos of the Blue Mosque, ideally with less street furniture clutter. Unfortunately I didn't get off quite as early as I'd hoped and didn't reach the area until about 8:30, so the tourist busses (and tourists) were already out in force. Still, I was able to get a few uncluttered photos, although some still suffer badly from parallax. After that I toured the famous Byzantine era Basilica Cistern, which I had bypassed the first time. I was glad I did - it is a big underground cavern, with rows of supporting columns, including two standing on heads of Medusa; they had installed small lamps at the bottom of each and the effect is quite spectacular. I had resisted it, and once I was inside, I wanted to resist the colored lights at the bottom of each column and the soft electronic music in the background, but it actually all worked very well. I was lucky I think to be there before any of the big tours arrived - there weren't over a dozen other people down there when I was, no chattering or any of that stuff that comes with big groups (and, alas, often with tour guides who feel they are being paid to talk whether there is anything worth saying or not.) I will upload a few of the pictures, along with a picture of some of the carp that inhabit the cistern.

I also toured the Hippodrome, most of which is pretty well gone, but there remain three obilisks. While I was sitting near the Egyptian obilisk contemplating it, about the 15th guide-book peddler came and stood exactly in my way to try to sell me one. I finally snapped, and told him curtly "I'm just trying to sit here and look at the obilisk. Please leave me alone." He asked where I was from in a surly tone, and I told him, and he moved on. I think that is what I find most annoying about the peddlers, touts, hustlers etc. - it seems like if you want to just stroll or sit and chill out and soak in the atmosphere of a place they just won't let you alone.

I also went to another mosque, Rustem Pasa, that is famous for its tiles, and they are indeed quite nice - I will upload a picture or two. It was extremely difficult to find - the guidebook identifies the street it's on, doesn't mention that the street changes names partway, and doesn't give a scale on the map, so it is hard to know if you've gone too far. I finally did find it, and enjoyed it once I did. Finally I gave in and went to tour Dolmahce Palace, since the guide-books praise it so highly. My initial decision to pass it by was correct. As I expected, it is mostly just a long series of rooms filled with over-the-top expensive furnishings, huge Baccarat crystal chandeliers, parquet floors, etc - how the obscenely rich and powerful live. Many of the rooms are impressively huge - several of them would hold our house, yard, and garage with room to spare. They are probably best compared to a basketball arena. The one thing I really wanted to see, the Crystal Pavilion, was closed, I think for cleaning. It cost 15 Lira for a 45 minute tour, which I felt was a huge waste of money as well as time. I think anyone interested in antiques would find it quite interesting.

Tomorrow I'm going to see if I can find my way to Yedicule Hisari, the Fortress of the Seven Towers, near the southern end of the old city wall.

April 24.

Today was a really nice day - I wore my pullover for about 20 minutes then carried it tied around my waist the rest of the day. Yedicule turned out to be quite easy to reach - a bus from Taksim took me there in about a half hour, so I was there before 9:00. They let me in a bit early, and I had the luxury of being the only one there for nearly an hour, when a half dozen others showed up. The light was quite good for photography and I took far too many to upload. The fortress began with a triumphal arch built in the 4th Century by Theodosius I; Theodosius II built the city wall, and worked the arch into the wall, added for towers, and built the original fort. Mehmet the Conqueror added three more towers. The fortress was used for defense, then as a treasure house, finally as a prison. It stands quite near the very end of the city wall; I took some pictures of the last half mile or so of wall and the towers that anchor the wall beside the Sea of Marmara, and also some pictures of the wall stretching out toward the north, over 6 km to the Golden Horn.

My guidebook said you could walk the wall, and one of the other sights I wished to visit, Chora Church (Kariye Muzesi), is very near the wall about 3 miles distant, so I decided to give it a try. After about a half mile I discovered that walking on the wall was not workable - not only is the path rough and broken, but there are abrupt terminations, sometimes in places where the government has constructed similes of the old wall. Fortunately for my planned walk, there is a wide, well paved walking path outside the wall, that as far as I can tell goes nearly the whole way. When I figured I had gone about 2.5 miles I saw a huge mosque or church about a half mile ahead of me, on the inside of the wall, so I headed for it. Unfortunately, the direct path led through a huge construction zone that is completely fenced in, so I had to double back nearly a half mile, cross back to the outside of the wall, and continue. I ran into a Turkish college student who wanted to practice his English; he walked with me back to the gate under the wall, then onward to about the area of the mosque, talking. He left me there, but I quickly realized that was not the right place. It took me nearly 30 minutes longer to find the church, but finally, using the Turkish name, I found a fruit seller willing not merely to sell me a banana but also able to show me the way.

The church was built in the 11th century; the decorations were added in the 14th century, funded by Theodore Metachites, a high ranking official of the empire; one of the mosaics shows him offering the church to Christ. Many of the mosaics are partially destroyed, but what remains is very beautiful. I was lucky to be able to dodge the 3 or 4 large tour groups that came through while I was there and spend some time contemplating and photographing the mosaics. Flash is of course not allowed, so some of my pictures did not come out well, but I will upload a sample of the ones that did. If one really wanted to spend some time contemplating the mosaics, it would be advisable to arrive at 9 sharp, when the museum opens; it is enough out of the way that the big groups probably don't show up until close to ten.

I had spent all the time I wanted in the church, and it wasn't even two, so I decided to make my way back to the old city area and visit the one additional place I had missed before that I wanted to see, the mosaic tile or palace floor museum. This museum, which actually runs under the street of an ancient shopping arcade, displays tile mosaics dating from as early as the era of the Emperor Constantine, who founded Constantinople and built the first palace on this site; it was expaned and added to over the century, and the floors were covered with beautiful mosaics. I took several pictures and will upload some of the best.

Finished with touring, I bought some roasted chestnuts and sat on the grass in the hippodrome area, watching the tourists and watching and listening to a marching band of some sort that came through the area. Eventually I got on the tram and headed back toward home, stopping along the way to get a haircut (that came with a very nice head, neck, and shoulder massage, all for 20 TL, about $13.) He even trimmed hairs from my ears and nose - something I've never experienced at a barber before! I went back to what has become my favorite Turkish restaurant; this time I ordered chicken wings. They were excellent; the guy who knows some English and usually helps me order was not there though, so I ended up with a tomato and cucumber salad rather than the mixed salad I've had before - still very good. The bill this time was 13.5 lira, about $9. It is interesting that the meal I enjoyed least was the most expensive by a large margin.

Sunday I am spending mostly resting and packing for the flight to London. I started booking train reservations in England but discovered two things: You save a lot by booking ahead; the farther ahead the more you save, and there is a senior discount card worth savings of about 1/3, but it is available to international travelers only in person. So I booked trains to and from Stratford upon Avon but will wait to book tickets into London and back until I can get the discount card on Monday. It is a relaxing day, a chance to upload my final photos from Turkey and maybe get a few hours writing done.

This unplanned extra week in Istanbul was a bit stressful at first, just because of the change in plans, but it turned out to be quite pleasant. I had some rest days, got some work done, and saw some historic sites I would have missed otherwise. I enjoyed my three weeks in Turkey, much more because of Aybuke's generous hospitality. It would be pleasant to return later in the spring and spend more time in rural areas to the south and east.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Istanbul, April 18

I had a great "last night" in Istanbul - walked with Aybuke and one of her friends to visit the castle I saw from the boat (and added several pictures of it) then walked back along a really lovely waterfront promenade, stopped for seafood at one restaurant, then stopped for a dessert waffle (covered with chocolate and several kinds of fresh fruit); weather very nice after showers earlier in the day.

Unfortunately, when I awoke this morning and logged onto my computer I discovered that it was not my last night in Istanbul - my flight to Dublin had been cancelled, as had LaJean's flight. She just asked for a refund and elected to stay home, so unfortunately I will not see her for a couple of months. I checked flight availability and, assuming the ash cloud clears, the earliest I can get to the British Isles is next Thursday to Dublin or Saturday to UK - both business class (several hundred more). I decided to try telephoning a ticket agent before booking either fight, but will probably take whatever I can get to London and be glad of it. Fortunately, Aybuke seems okay with me hanging out in her apartment for another week! I have most of the files I need for my work on my laptop, and this is a pretty comfortable place to work, so that's what I will have to do. I'll probably do a bit more sight-seeing, but I'm beginning to feel the itch to get some work done. I feel so lucky that I am stranded here in a comfortable place in stead of in some in-between airport somewhere like so many are.

It is an interesting experience; puts me in mind of novels I've read about people caught up in wars, revolutions, and various kinds of natural disasters. Wish I were reading about it instead of living it. It brings forcefully to mind a sense of our helplessness before the random forces of geology and weather - as well as of history etc. Istanbul, with its 2000+ years of intense history, is a good place to be having these reflections.

A few hours later... After listening to bouncy music on "hold" for a half hour I finally made contact with a harried (but very polite) ticket sales agent who rebooked me on a late evening flight to London Heathrow for next Sunday. No extra charge; my esteem for Turkish Airways just went up several notches. Lucky Aybuke, she gets to have me underfoot for another week. I am so incredibly grateful that I'm not camping out on an army cot in some airport in between! Now if that ash cloud will just cooperate by quietly going away... So I am finishing up my photoblog from yesterday, finishing a book I began 3 weeks ago that I need to cite, preparing to restore a sense of "normal" by getting some work done next week. Another test of my basic attitude of flexibility, I guess.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

April 17, Turkey

Yesterday I spent the day taking a boat tour of the Bosphorus - 1.5 hours along the European shore, ending at a small village on the Asian shore very near the Black Sea (clearly visible just a couple of kilometers away), with 3 hours to explore the ruins of an ancient castle on the hill above and have a (slightly overpriced) sea-food lunch before returning. The skies started out rather thick with mist and smog, but it cleared up by noon and turned into a beautiful spring afternoon. Aybuke had warned me to take warm clothes, so I had my fleece jacket as well as my other jacket - I needed both of them for the last half hour of the outbound trip and the first half hour in-bound, when the chill wind from off the Black Sea was on us. The light was not very good for photos, but I took a few of mosques and a couple of neighborhoods along the shoreline, and several of a castle on the European shore, which Aybuke will take me to this afternoon, as well as several of the ruined castle near the Black Sea.

Yesterday I was quite concerned that the Iceland volcano might interfere with LaJean's plans to join me in Ireland, but yesterday Dublin reopened their airports to flights from the U.S. and it looks like I will be seeing her tomorrow after all. I have my fingers crossed! Today I am spending the morning packing and putting everything in order while Aybuke takes the first part of her drivers' license test, then we will go out for a sight-seeing walk, probably I will take a few more photos, then it will be to bed somewhat early, in preparation for tomorrow's flight to Dublin.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

April 13, Pamukkale and Hierapolis.

The innkeeper arranged a tour for me to Pamukkale, famous for its calcium springs, and Hierapolis, a city located above the springs that dates to pre-Roman times, was destroyed by earthquakes and rebuilt several times. At 80TL (about $50), including lunch and admissions, it seemed pretty reaqsonable. A taxi picked me up, took me to the tour company office, where I and two other clients were loaded on a narrow little mini-bus, two seats along the left and one along the right; total capacity about 20 persons; very narrow seats with little leg-room and no place to put bags, water bottles, jackets, etc. except on one's lap. We went to another B&B where we picked up enough other passengers that the bus was almost full. It was a full 3 hours to the destination; we picked up our tour guide along the way, then stopped at a road stop (which did not sell cimits, the little rolls I like - and I had neglected to pick any up before leaving.) The other passengers included people from the U.S. and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Europe; nice people, although the layout of the bus did not allow for much socializing. The weather was heavily overcast and cool when we set out, although it cleared not long after noon.

When we reached the destination, we first stopped at a resort restaurant for a buffet meal. I started with salad (excellent) and soup (totally tasteless - after about 1/3 of a bowl I gave up on it), then had some bulgar wheat and a bit of fairly good chicken, with a beer. Dessert looked interesting, but the three small ones I tried were fairly tasteless, so I gave up on them as well.

After lunch we drove back up the road to an entry gate that led directly into the Hierapolis necropolis (graveyard, basically), which was lined with tombs, many half destroyed by the many earthquakes, representing several styles of tomb architecture; I took a number of pictures here. Then we entered the remains of the city itself, which was very interesting. The guide told us that until recently the site was not protected, and people were in the habit of just pulling in with a truck and carting off whole truckloads of marble, which more or less completed the destruction started by the earthquakes. Still, there were enough partial structures standing to give a very good sense of what the city was like in its prime, during the years immediately before and after conversion of the empire to Christianity. Among the many interesting sights: two gates, one Roman era and one Byzantine, parts of several fountains, remnants of the agora, a large theater built into the side of a hill, and the remains of a church built over St. Stephen's tomb.

The guide more or less hurried us through the initial part of the tour, although he provided good information about everything we saw - but by lagging behind then hurrying to catch up I was able to get most of the photos I wanted. Part of his constraints - he had three groups; several wanted to swim for an hour in the mineral water pool (at 25 TL, over $15, it seemed a bit steep to me, but I'm not all that enthusiastic about swimming). Another group wanted to spend a lot of time at the mineral springs, where the springs have formed spectacular terraces. Most of these are startlingly white, since they are formed of pure calcite, but about 50 years ago, private companies were allowed to built luxury hotels above the springs and capture the water for their swimming pools; the result was that the terraces quickly turned brownish-grey, as a result of weathering (about half are still this color). A few years ago the hotels were forced to close, and now the water flows down over the terraces again, but the guide said it would take 150 years for the area to renew itself to its original state.

More interesting to me were the ruins above the springs. I climbed up toward the theater, passing some interesting ruins of a nymphaem and a plutonium, then climbed to the top of the theater itself, which affords a great view out over the lower parts of the city ruins as well as across the plains below. Then I continued up the road that passes by the stadium passed through and along the ruins of the old city wall, climbed up a trail to St Stephen's Martyrium, still very impressive even in its ruined state. Below the Martyrium is another ruined structure, with signs warning of its danger; I believe this is the old cave that still emits poison gas (and has apparently done in several incautious tourists). The guide said it was once used to "cure" demented patients - if, I suppose, they survived the cure. I took some pictures but, of course, stayed well away.

I found a trail nearby that led across the hill to a couple of other Roman era structures, down through the area that used to be the agora, but now has only a handful of marble columns and steps to provide hints of what it was once like, then retraced the route we had taken earlier in the day, more slowly, and taking time to wait out the huge tour groups so as to capture some of the pictures I had missed earlier - and to retake others in a late afternoon light.

The guidebook describes Hierapolis in a way that sounds like it isn't much, but for my money it is about as big, and about as well-preserved, as the better known Ephesus. The calcium springs area is worth looking at, and I took a couple of pictures that are pretty interesting, but there was no question in my mind about spending as much time as possible exploring the ruins of the ancient city. I only wish I had had a couple of days, so as to stay overnight in the region and also visit the nearbuy (a couiple of hours) Aphroditopolis with its marble temples.

It was a great day but it ended in an exhausting way. The guide had allowed two options for meeting back up, either at the necropolis gate or at the restaurant at the bottom of the calcite terraces where we had had lunch. We hung around for about 15 minutes after the appointed time to be sure everyone was there who wanted to be picked up there. Then we drove back toward the restaurant, and encountered a police barricade - earlier they had had a bicycle race there; I don''t know if the barricade was connected with that or not. In any event, the guide had to walk a hundred or two hundred meters to the restaurant to bring the others back. Then, he had promised two members of the group that he would drop them at the bus station to go on to their next town without returning to Selcuk - and it took about 20 minutes to find our way around the barricaded streets. We finally headed back to Selcuk about 5. The guide explained how we would be let off, then left us an hour out of town. However, the driver switched plans on us, and his English was not good enough to explain - he pulled into a tourist area, turned off the engine, and said, "Selcuk. Different bus." We were suspicious of it, since the guide had said nothing about changing busses; when the other bus came that driver spoke a bit better English, but it still wasn't clear what was happening, since half the tour members, whom I thought were also staying in Selcuk, stayed on the bus.

One of the other tourists talked with the other driver and said it was okay, that the original bus was going off to a different town before returning to Selcuk, a detour of about 25 km. I was still suspicious, but the bus did go to Selcuk. When we entered Selcuk, well after 8, we turned off the highway about 3 short blocks from my B&B, and I made the mistake of not asking to be let off there. They stopped a few blocks on in front of another guest house, then the driver took me around about half the town before stopping, in a street on the back side of Alihan's - I had to walk just as far as if I had got off with the others, but got there about 20 minutes later. I was pretty ticked, and very glad I did not contribute to the tip for the guide. I felt much better after a bit of food and a glass of beer. The tour was quite good, actually, but getting there and back was rather too much of a hassle.

This morning, April 15, I got up early, as usual. After breakfast I toured the small but interesting museum, that includes several items from the ":slope houses" in Ephesus. There was no-one there to sell tickets either when I arrived or whgen I left; they let me tour the place without paying. After that I walked back up to the castle above St. Jean's, and a couple of entrepreneurial little boys showed me a way to climb through the fence, so I got to see the castle after all, albeit rather illegally. The older boy asked for 10 lira each, but I gave him only 10 and said he'd have to share. I probably should have given him only 5, but it was rather interesting.

The trip back to the airport was much easier then the trip from the airport - I actually had a seat, and the schedule is such that I only arrived an hour and a half ahead of my flight, maybe a little extra, but not a long wait really.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

April 12, Selchuk and Ephesus.

Today I walked over before breakfast to near the train station where I picked up a couple of the little donut-shaped rolls I like (hard, covered with sesame seeds) to take for lunch. I emptied out my big day pack so I could put water and a jacket in it, had a nice Turkish breakfast - feta cheese, olives, sliced tomato, orange, apple, carrot, and cucumber, bread, and a boiled egg. Then I walked to Ephesus - about a 20 minute walk along a really nice pedestrian / bike path that parallels the highway. It was a pleasant day, already warm enough when I got there that I took off my jacket and put it inside the pack.

The ruins are not as well preserved as the Lonely Planet description implies, but it is large enough that I found it easy to spend 5 hours there, and was glad I had brought some food and water. The accessible ruins are mainly spread out along a main street that runs from the crest of a hill down to a "harbor way," lined with pillars, that leads to what was once the harbor, but silted in to the point that it is now open fields, a good kilometer or more from the coast. To one side, near the lower entry where I entered, is the ruins of the Church of St. Mary - I returned here at the end of my visit to take a picture of the eastern end once the sun was high enough not to spoil the shot. Then I began the long walk uphill, beginning with the enormous amphitheater at the bottom of the hill. (There is another, smaller amphitheater near the top.) By now, the large tour groups were out in force, so in order to get decent photographs I had to spend a lot of time waiting for one group to move on, then grab a couple of photos before the next group came in. A very annoying habit of tour guides: With a very few exceptions they seem to like to stand, and position their listening flock, directly smack in the center of the attractions they are talking about - so independent visitors can not get near it much less get a photograph of it until they have finished their long-winded spiels. A few, more courteous, tour guides stand off to the side of the attraction to talk about it, then leave it to the group members to look at it and photograph it on their own.

Immediately after the amphitheater is the forum and the two story library, both very impressive. Moving up the hill is a series of fountains, a public bath, a huge public toilet (that had constantly running water for sanitation), and on the right side a large area of wealthy persons' houses that has been covered over to protect it from weather while a team of archaeologists pieces it back together. Admission to this was a separate and rather steep 15 TL, about $10 US, but after touring it I considered it well worth it: It was interesting to see the reconstruction project itself, and there were several really good floor mosaics and wall paintings.

I left Ephesus about 1:30, and instead of going straight back to Selcuk, I followed a sign to the "Grotto of the Seven Sleepers." this was fenced in and more or less closed, but I was able to get several interesting pictures. The basic story is seven young men who (in the Christian version) went into a mountain cave to pray during the time when the Romans were persecuting Christians, then awoke several decades later after the empire had adopted Christianity, and died praising God. There is a slightly different Muslim version. A church was built over the cave complex, and has since fallen into ruins, with the help of earthquakes.

Fortunately, I found a dirt road across the fields to the main highway so I did not have to walk all the way back to the entry of Ephesus, then back to Selcuk. I went back to the hotel, dumped my pack, then walked back to the road that led to the Temple of Artimis, once named one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, but now only a single large column standing in the middle of a marshy field outside of town, with a stork nest atop the column. It was worth visiting but required a lot of imagination.

On the way back to town, I followed the highway from Ephesus past the intersection and, as I had hoped, found a market area, with shops that sold fruit as well as other goods, and was able to pick up some bananas and oranges for breakfast and to take with me on the tour to Pamukkale.

Monday, April 12, 2010

April 12, Selcuk

The rest of the trip to Selcuk was uneventful, except for the 3 hour wait for a train at the airport station, and the lack of any printed time-table or even signs on the platform to tell you for sure which train to get on! I had to ask advice of a couple of other travellers to be sure I was getting on the right train, and when I got on it was jammed with people, so I ended up standing the whole way, a bit less than an hour, with my backpack on. I was able to brace myself against a corner so it wasn't too bad but I didn't see much of the countryside.

Selcuk is itself a small town with signs of its history in the form of a ruined viaduct right in front of the train station, and the ruins of the Basilica of St. Jean, built in the 4th century to honor the youngest of the 12 apostles, then wrecked by an earthquake and rebuilt even larger and grander - converted to a mosque, and ruined by another earthquake. As soon as I checked in to the B&B I walked back up and toured the ruins, very nice in the late afternoon light, and only a couple tour groups plus a scattering of other individuals; I managed to get several photos that I will upload later. Unfortunately I lost my memory card reader in Edirne so will have to get another one before I can upload anything new.

Above the basilica, on the very top of a hill overlooking Selcuk, is a huge old castle. Unfortunately, it is apparently very unstable and they have it closed while doing some repairs to keep the walls from falling on a tourist. They won't let you within a couple hundred meters of it.

After touring the basilica I walked back into town hoping to find a place to buy some fresh fruit and maybe a cenit, the little donut shaped bread rolls, to take with me to Ephesus, but real estate is apparently too valuable for that: In addition to the dozens of carpet and souvenir shops, restaurants, etc., I found several little shops selling soft drinks, beer, and junk food, but no fruit, no Turkish street food. After I get back from Ephesus I will walk to the other side of the station and see if the residents side of town has anything.

Reflections on the transition back to normalcy

While I was in Cambodia and Nepal I deliberately isolated myself from everyday concerns - stopped reading any news feeds at all, almost entirely stopped thinking about research or other work-related matters. Now that I am in Turkey (the very European Istanbul region), I find myself beginning the transition back - I have begun to skim the New York Times on-line news headlines again, and I have begun looking at a couple of my works-in-progress, getting myself back into thinking about research and teaching. Partly this is because I will soon be in the UK, where I will go back to work for a couple of months, both working on the project I will be doing with Lynne Cameron and reworking a couple of other works-in-progress, but partly the normalcy of life in this region of Turkey has brought the most adventurous aspects of my trip to a close.

It took me about five days to become quite familiar with both the overall layout of Istanbul and the skills needed to find my way around the city. It helped that the bus Aybuke and I took back from Edirne dropped us off right next to the place where one transfers from the Metro Bus to the Metro subway to the airport, so this morning I knew exactly where I was going to get to the airport - and getting back from the airport will be simply the opposite. That experience somehow brought it all together; if telt like the familiar "click" of comprehension. The little akbil gadget for paying metro fares is wonderful - saves a lot of standing in line. Now that I am getting fully familiar with it, I find myself envying Istanbul's mass transportation system, with its combination of subway / surface trains, Metrobusses that run on dedicated lanes in the central freeway, light rail, and local busses. It took a while to get used to the system of identifyhing stops by neighborhood name rather than by major streets, but now I find that system familiar and easy to use - to recall and recognize the neighborhood names I need to know. And so I out of the region of maximum ambiguity and back into the world of the predictable and the comprehensible. Aybuke has helped a lot with this transition, but I feel now that I could find my way to pretty well any destination in this region.

Especially in Nepal, but also in Cambodia, Bangkok, and India, the sense of unpredictability is what created the most consistent source of both anxiety and adventure. Things are often quite different from how they are described or represented, basic services like water, electricity, and transportation often don't work or work intermittently, information is often incomplete or even misleading, and there are beggars, touts, and other parasites everywhere. The result is that it is necessary to maintain a constant level of alertness and attention that is not necessary in more familiar circumstances - and for this purpose I find that Turkey qualifies as more familiar. It took a few days to understand the pattern of life here, but it has a pattern, there are rules, and once the pattern is understood it is predictable and familiar.

Dealing with the ambiguity and unpredictability has been bracing. It is nice to be able to relax and take basic things for granted, but I will probably miss the intellectual and emotional challenge of Asia. I think part of what I hoped for was to get as completely as possible outside of my normal ways of thinking and responding, and the first part of this trip definitely accomplished that. Based on the couple of hours I spent reviewing the editor's comments on one of my current works in progress then re-reading a draft of the essay, I can tell that I will slip easily back into the academic and theoretical way of thinking, and I will probably just as easily slip back into my daily meal and exercise routines when I reach Ireland and the UK. Still, I think the habits of alertness that emerged out of not being able to take things entirely for granted will stay with me for quite a while.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

April 9, Edirne, Turkey

Aybuke invited me to spend the weekend with her and her family at her parents' home in a small village, a suburb of Edirne, a couple hundred kilometers north of Istanbul. Edirne was for a time the capital of the Ottoman Empire, and it has another mosque built by the same architect who built the Blue Mosque; it also has an old part of town with the narrower, slightly off-angle streets typical of pre-automobile cities, and is quite enjoyable just to wander around in. Our touring was limited on Friday when I arrived, because of my slightly bulky pack, but Aybuke treated me to a local specialty in a small restaurant before we went to her parents' house - fried calves' liver (thin sliced, parboiled, breaded and fried). I found it quite delicious. We spent Saturday morning visiting the Mosque and wandering around the bazars and the streets of the old part of the city, where autos are mostly excluded. I have some pictures of Edirne, a very large Synagogue that was abandoned when all the local Jewish population migrated to Israel, the village itself, and Aybuke's family, mostly in the kitchen, where everyone gathers.

Aybuke's brother was there part of the time; other than the two of them, her father speaks a very little English, and everyone else I met was frustrated that they could not talk directly with me but had to talk through Aybuke's translation. Like most cultures, when you get away from the large city everyone is very friendly, weloming, and to the extent possible talkative. Aybuke was worried that I would be bored, mostly sitting around listening to people talk in a language I do not understand, but I found it quite interesting - when you don't know the words, you hear the rhythm and music of a language more acutely; not understanding the words also makes it easier to focus on the rhythm and valence of the underlying relationships and interactions. One of the things that struck me repeatedly, was how familiar the underlying patterns were to me, underneath the differences in setting - I kept being reminded of Idaho in the 1950s when I was a child. That was even more so on Saturday afternoon when we drove to another town, north of Edirne, about halfway to Gallipoli, to visit Aybuke's uncle. He has a degenerative bone disease, and has had to have at least 10 operations for it, but I was struck by his positive and upbeat outlook and his obvious sense of humor. His wife and daughter also reminded me of one of my father's cousins who we used to visit when I was a child. All were very welcoming toward me, curious about me - fortunately Aybuke was able to answer most of their questions and interpret very well for me. We sat on a small patio area in front of the house, between the house and a pretty little flower garden, and again I enjoyed just listening to the rhythm of the conversation and the interactions; even though I did not understand the joking literally I appreciated and enjoyed the mirth and the sense of mutual enjoyment throughout.

Aybuke's brother was a bit concerned about driving back in the dark, so we began preparing to leave; then her aunt insisted on feeding us dinner, rather impromptu but very good; it included a nice green salad, mostly lettuce and cucumbers with an olive oil and lemon juice dressing, which was set out on two oval plates in the center of the table; everyone ate from the same plates. We had a simple soup of crushed peppers and pureed onions in a light broth - Aybuke's brother told me it is called "poor house" soup. The story behind the name (possibly apocryphal, like many of these stories): One of the sultans went out incognito to see how his people lived; he was invited in to a house and served this soup. He apologized for the meal, saying "this is just a poor house." Poor house or not it was quite good. Then we had plain pasta with no dressing, roasted chicken wings, and oven-roasted potatoes, nicely crisp. The chicken provided all the dressing the pasta needed. Accompanying everything was an excellent local bread with a nice crust, partway between tough and crisp, that reminded me of some of the best Italian breads. It was a very convivial and satisfying meal, although I must say I wish I'd taken a longer walk before we got into the car for the drive home.

Throughout my visit here I have been struck more by the commonalities of culture than by the differences: hospitality is important, feeding one's visitors is important, relationships are important to maintain even if contact is infrequent. Some of the more surface-level differences: Intimates greet each other with the cheek touching version of a kiss; handshakes among intimates include the younger person touching the older person's hand to his/her forehead as a sign of respect. Otherwise the joking is casual and informal, as it would be in my own culture. I am told that in the eastern and more rural parts of Turkey there is more rigid segregation of the sexes, more attention to social hierarchy, and more conservative social customs generally, but I gathered from the conversation that none of the people I met have actually been there or experienced it directly. It did give me some curiosity to visit the more rural areas, but there is not time for that on this trip.

Friday, April 9, 2010

April 8, Topkapi Palace

Thursday, April 8.

One useful thing I didn't mention from Tuesday: I stopped by a tourist office, picked up a better map (free) than the ones we had paid for, and asked about the little multiple fare gadget Aybuke was using, similar to the fare card they use in Tokyo. It's called an akbil, and the lady also told me where I could pick one up - that has greatly expedited subsequent mass transit use. I also discovered, with the help of the tourist info person and the map, that there is a very convenient tram / light rail line that passes most of the major museum attractions and ends just below Taksim, at a funicular that takes you right to Taksim station; no need for taxis. (Although you have to pay a fare, 1.5 TL or about 90 cents US, for each leg, so it totals to a bit uner $3 anyway.)

Yesterday I awoke to fairly heavy, steady rain and decided it would be a good time to catch up on my blog and photo-blog; took all day and I'm still not done. I new I was behind. About mid-afternoon the rain quit, so I walked over to the mall again, picked up some lettuce, tomatoes, cereal, frozen peas, etc. for dinner. I also wanted a bit of butter, but none of the packaging looked at all familiar so I gave up on it. I picked up a spitted chicken on the way home, and had a fairly good meal, although the chicken was much blander than I expected - only after I had finished did I find the packet of season-it-yourself seasoning in the bottom of the bag! Today on the way home, having ascertained that Aybuke does have a corkscrew (the wonders of screw-top wine bottles have not penetrated this market yet, alas) I also picked up a bottle of inexpensive red wine and a bottle of milk, since what Aybuke left was about gone.

Having worked out the route to the Topkapi palace, I found my way there quite easily - it took only a bit over an hour, so I was there well before 8:30, when I thought it opened; since it actually didn't open until 9, I had plenty of time to sit around enjoying the park in front of the palace gates. The palace was certainly interesting, although it was quite expensive (20 TL for entry plus a separate 15 TL for entry into the harem - and in my opinion, seeing the palace without seeing the harem would be almost pointless - total 35 TL, about $20 US). About half the halls were closed, possibly for renovation; the entire palace took about 3 hours, and I don't think I'd want to have missed it. After finishing that, I decided just to pick up one of the little twisted bread donut shaped rolls they sell on street corners for a quick lunch, then went back to look at parts of the archaeological museum I had skipped over so lightly the first time. I spent another two very worthwhie hours there as well.

One of the disappointments for me about Istanbul is how little is left of the legacy of 1000 years of the Eastern Roman Empire - in keeping with the practice of conquerers more or less everywhere, the Ottoman's obliterated or built over most of the Roman palaces and other buildings, converted the churches to mosques, etc. That is partially compensated by an excellent exhibit in the museum on the Byzantine era - they also have an excellent historical exhibit on Troy (which, after reading more about the site, I don'tt hink I will visit after all) and exhibits on several of the other ancient civilizations of the region. Of particular interest is their rather large sarcaphogus collection. Some or rather ordinary but many of them have quite fine bas relief sculptures on every side.

The weather had turned quite nice by the time I left the museum and I was a bit hungry. I didn't want to sit down to a large lunch - I wasn't that hungry - and hoped to find one of the street vendors (or sidewalk shops) that sell meat or cheese-filled pastires; one of those plus an orange juice would do it just fine. Unfortunately, the tourist area near the Ave Sophia (or Hagia Sophia) and Topkapi has many more expensive sit-down places (and a few less expensive sit-down places) but the kind of place was not much inevidence. As I walked out of the palace gate, scanning the street for the kind of Turkish fast-food shop I sought, I must have looked lost and confused, because I was immediately approached by an ultra-friendly completely fluent in English, guy who asked friendly questions about where I was from, offered the information that he has a friend in Spokane,, told me he owns a shop nearby and would like to give me his card (by now I was recognizing the routine), etc. When we got there (a carpet and leather goods shop) he introduced me to his "partner," then quietly disappeared - no doubt going back to cast his line into the tourist stream again. After the "partner" tried desperately to convince me that I could certainly buy at least one carpet, they're much more expensive than in Portland etc., I had a coughing fit and he gave me some quite good apple tea, but even as I was trying to stop coughinb, he just would not let up. Exasperated, I finally told him, "Yes, I could buy two or three carpets if I wanted. But I'm not going to." The oily smile finally vanished from his face and I got up and left, even though he half-heartedly tried to get me to look at the leather jackets. I think the shop was probably legit, although given its tourist district location, and the obvious reliance on touts, I expect it is rather overpriced.

On the way home, I \stopped at a smaller grocery store to pick up some milk (the Profilo shopping mall has a security check at the entry, which is rather a hassle). I picked up what I thought was milk, even though the smallest jug they had was 2 liter, for about $2 US, stopped in at a bakery to pick up some Turkish sweets for dessert, and went on home. The next morning, after I had poured it over a full bowl of bananas and cereal, I discovered that it is definitely not milk. I think it is probably whey. (I asked Aybuke about it and she said it is probably a very popular Turkish drink, unsweetened yoghurt mixed with salt and water.) In any event, after gagging down a couple spoons full I realized I would be sick if I tried to eat much of it, dumped it out, and made as good a breakfast as I could on what little was left of the cereal plus a banana and a cut-up orange. As I was thinking about it I realized that I could have found the Turkish words for both milk and butter on the web, had I thought to look in advance.

Friday, April 9.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

April 6, Istanbul

Yesterday after my first restaurant meal in Istanbul the thought occurred to me, that one way you know you're in Europe not Asia is when the napkin holders are actually filled with paper napkinss, not facial tissue or a roll of toilet tissue. I was thinking that the adventure in Asia would end when I flew to Dublin, but I think it actually ended yesterday when I left Delhi.

Entry into Istanbul was a bit of a hassle - I think the Turkish Immigration may be the worst I've encountered. They had a long snaking single line marked out (nonetheless rude people kept jumping it) but at the end they dumped everybody into a milling crowd, where you tried to figure out which booth the gravitate toward. It easily set the record for the longest time to get through passport control - over 90 minutes. Since they require even people who are changing plans or even getting back on the same plane to go through an immigration check, a lot of people were worried about missing connections; it turned into a near riot, with people chanting "open another booth! open another booth!" I wasn't aware that I would have to pay $20 U.S. - there was a chance I might have packed my U.S. money in my checked luggage. Fortunately I had it in a carry-on; I don't know what would have happened, since there is no ATM until after passport control.

As I finally emerged, dazed, from this experience Aybuke (a Turkish former student) met me, sat me down at a coffee shop and ordered cheesecake and coffee for me, and the day abruptly got much, much better. After I had recovered my poise, led me to the subway station for the trip to her cousin's apartment, where she is staying while her cousin is abroad. Istanbul has a quite good mass transit system, a combination of subways, elevated busways, and surface light rail, as well as several independent bus companies. Unfortunately, for reasons that aren't entirely obvious to me, these lines don't always connect up perfectly, so changing often means leaving one system entirely, walking a half block or several blocks to the next, then paying a new fare. Cabs are also quite cheap, so, because of the heavy duffel-bag I'm carrying with my hiking gear, we took one from the final stop to the apartment. When I depart I may do the same thing in reverse.

Aybuke's apartment is a comfortable place, which would seem a bit small in Portland but quite roomy in Manhattan. It is in a lovely boheme neighborhood of 3-5 story apartment buildings with various enterprises on the ground floor, including small grocery stores, eateries, bakeries, etc. and a mixture of ages - it reminds me very much of Greenwich Village, North Beach, or the Mission District. Nearby is an urban shopping mall with a full-size supermarket, lots of clothing stores, a whole floor of eateries including some authentic and, Aybuke says, very good Turkish restaurants as well as an array of MacDonalds, KFC, etc. Among its other uses, this mall is well-known throughout European Istanbul, so it is a good anchor for my rambling trips. It also has a couple of exceptionally good sweets shops - as I write, I am munching on a confection that includes pistachios and honey among other good things that I picked up on the way home.

Aybuke's mother is recovering from a recent operation, and Aybuke needed to go to their home, a couple of hours away by bus, but she was worried about my ability to negotiate this huge city (she reminded me a lot of Anne in her worrying over me). Maps are helpful for orienting oneself, but only the larger streets are shown on them, street names aren't always present at intersections, and Aybuke says no-one uses the system. So she took me to a great shopping street, Istiklal, which, oddly, isn't mentioned in the guidebooks I consulted), closed to all traffic except a San-Francisco style cable car, then we walked down to the water-front (the Sea of Marmara), and we took a cab back home, with her all the while impressing land-marks on me (an inveterate map-user, totally incompetent with directions like "turn left at the key shop.") After she left, I went back over to the mall to get some supper, then spent over an hour with my guidebook and the two maps she had got for me, figuring out my plan for today.

I was awakened by a recorded call to prayer from the nearby mosque, a sound I find quite nice. I had breakfast, did a little e-mail work, then set out. I had decided to take a cab to the Topkapi Seraglio, then work out how to get back by mass transit (which turned out to be quite easy). I became quite nervous when the driver apparently wound around all over the place, but it was rush hour, and Istanbul cabbies are known for their skill at avoiding traffic tie-ups - I saw several of them in front of us, above us on an elevated freeway, etc. Since he spoke no English, and the word "Topkapi" refers to the district as well as the palace, and probably to several other things, I was rather nervous about miscommunication, but when I saw a bridge over the Golden Horn in front of us I relaxed.

Unfortunately both the palace and the palace museum were closed, and I will need to go back again tomorrow to see them. However, several other monuments in that area were open, so I managed to spend a full day, as long as I had stamina for. I began with the Aya Sophia, built in the 6th century and converted to a mosque after the conquest. It is a but down at the heels after 12 centuries, but it is easy to envision the grandeur of the place when the colors were fresh in the tiles and frescoes. The dome is huge and the colors in the dome are still lovely. I then spent a couple of hours in the archaeological museum, which has many sculptures and other artifacts (and many reproductions) of Hellenic and pre-Hellenic times. I did not see all of it - that would probably take a day in itself. After the archaeological museum I toured the Blue Mosque, which with its soaring domes and brilliant colors is almost as impressive as the Aya Sophia. Visits to a couple more mosques and a couple of tombs helped fix in my mind a pretty clear sense of Byzantine and Ottoman aesthetics, which are very impressive.

I entered a few steps into the highly recommended Grand Bazar, but quickly decided that it might be great if you love shopping, but for someone like me who orders almost everything on-line, it is overstated. I found the open-air street markets more interesting for commercial madness, and Istalklal much more interesting for people-watching. After climbing the hill to see Sulyaman Mosque, which was closed and apparently under major restoration, I came back the other side through a series of narrow, shop-lined streets, great fun really, and caught a light rail tram back over to the foot of another hill, that I climbed to reach Tacksin, the end of the Istalklal and a transfer point for subway, bus, and streetcar lines. I rambled around Tacksin for a while, then sat down for an early light supper (I wanted fish and haven't seen any fish restaurants in this neighborhood). It was beginning to sprinkle lightly, and I hadn't carried my portable umbrella, so I wanted to start home.

Last night, I ordered a dish with grilled very thin slices of meat. Assuming it would just be the meat with some bread, and wanting a vegetable, I also ordered an interesting looking pilaf with peas and mushrooms and dried mint. The meat did include rice, and the pilaf had no peas that I could detect (but it was quite good, with the mint) so I could eat barely half the two dished. So tonight, encouraged by a picture on the same page in the menu, I assumed the fish (calamari) would come with at least salad and maybe fries. Wrong again - it was more like an hors d' oeuvre. The calamari were good, but they and a glass of white wine ran to about $15, and I still hadn't had salad. So I stopped by the Profile mall and picked up carrots, lettuce, and tomatoes for a salad and the sweets shop to get a dessert for myself, and headed home.

I was a bit worried that it would take some fumbling around and maybe some extensive backtracking to find the Profile Mall, but I mostly walked straight to the mall, and from there it's an easy short walk home.

Monday, April 5, 2010

India - a very short stay

April 1 Agra India

The airplane was over an hour late leaving Kathmandu, and getting through Indian immigration was frustrating, because the airline did not hand out the landing form, and it was not at all clear where to get them. There was a long counter next to the immigration counters, with baskets apparently designed for the forms, but they were all empty. Fortunately another tourist had a couple of extra ones and gave me on. Then I had a misunderstanding with the hotel's driver, who had said he would be "outside gate 2 arrival," which I understood to mean the area inside the terminal building where hotel drivers usually pick up passengers, but he meant entirely outside the building. That added a good half hour of telephoning the hotel for clarification, etc. I had to stiff the telephone agent because he wanted 19 rupees for the call, but the ATM handed out only 500 rupee notes. (I encounted this problem repeatedly - absolutely no-one wants to make change. 500 rupees is only about $10.00, but it is often all but impossible to spend one.

When I finally arrived at the Taj Plaza, it was a pretty nice hotel - clean rooms (although I later discovered fleas in the bathroom) with a good bed, a very nice view of the Taj Majal from the rooftop restaurant and, in principle, from my room - except the window AC was plopped smack in the moddle of the view, so you had to stand up to see over it. I write this on the roof-top restaurant with the Taj slowly emerging from the gloom as the morning light slowly grows. It is quite lovely.

India in many ways seems as chaotic as Nepal, but at a lower level of intensity, with an underlying sense of order or potential order that is mostly absent in Nepal - the contrast principle made it seem much better. Highway 2, which leads to Agra, is well paved with 4 lanes most of the time, separateed by a divider of one sort or another in many places, and there are stoplights. However, in 4 days I was unable to figure out the principles that govern when people obey the stoplights and when they do not. The same sort of rude, pushy driving behavior is evident here as in the rest of Asia. As in Nepal, the roadway is shared by all manner of vehicles, with extremely slow ones often causing small-scale traffic jams: motor bikes, huge slow trucks, farm tractors pulling wagons loaded with briks, bicycles, tricycles with cargo beds and loads often stack precariously 8 feet or more above the driver's head, tuk-tuks, little 3-wheel jitneys sometimes carryng cargo, sometimes with up to 9 passengers sometime jammed into them; busses, both very fast and very slow, ox-carts, horse-drawn carts, carts drawn by camels and pulled or pushed by hand, an elephant with a bunch of pans strappped on behind the rider. Unlike in Nepal, the driver would occasionally get up to 90 or even 110 kpm for a mile or two - then come to a screeching almost-halt to deal with a traffic barrier.

April 2

Writing this time in the late afternoon - the Taj is an almost flesh color with the late afternoon sun behind it. Today we toured three major sites and some lesser ones. I will try to pair up the guide's detailed commentary with the photos I took as soon as I'm able to upload them (and check the spelling of names). We begin in Fatehpur Sikri, the central palace complex near the center of what was the second and fourth capital of the Moghul dynasty (15th-16th century). The palace complex includes several palaces built by different emperors. The city was founded by Emperor Akbar, who moved his capital there from Delhi. It was later moved to Agra because of a shortabe of water, but the third emperor, Shahjehan (who built the Taj Majal) moved it back and renamed it the City of Peace and Love.

Originally there were no wood doors. India was quite hot to the Moghuls, so they used a lot of ornate lattice-work for ventilation, and separated rooms and maintained purdah by hanging carpets between rooms. (The carpets, along with the gold and gems, were looted by the British during their control of India.) Surprisingly given the softness and erodability of sandstone, the lattice-work is intact, and still quite stunning to look at with its many geometric designs.

In a small room are some excellent bas reliefs of birds and animals commissioned by Shahjehan, who was an art lover; all the heads were chiselled of by a later emperor in accordance with the muslim prohibition against images of humans, animals, or birds. Emperor Akbar had both a Christian and a Hindu wife; he built separate kitchens, vegetarian for the Hindu wife, meat for the Christian wife. He also commissioned a pillar combining calligraphic and sculptural styles from the four main religions present at the time, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Jainism.

Both here and at the Agra Fort there are both summer and winter palaces, facing each other across a large courtyard, identical except for climate control features, here open lattice-work for summer cooling, closed walls for winter; in both cases the winter palace faces south to catch the warmth of the sun. There was also a royal hospital, with small bedrooms separated by carpets.

The treasury is a large, open room with alcove / shelves cut into the stone wlls; each shelf has a square hole cut in the bottom with a fit plug; gold and jewels were stored there. The treasury has many pillars open to the outside; carpets were hung throughout and Akbar used to play hide and seek there with his wives.

The palace complex is within an inner wall; the outer wall enclosed a fair- sized city, most of which is in ruins, and has not been maintained or repaired by the government. As we drove back toward Agra we passed rows of small rooms, barracks for the soldiers.

We proceeded to Agra fort, 85% of which is currently used by the army so it cannot be viewed. As I entered the fort, I saw a pesky monkey being chased off by some tourists he had been bothering, seeking handouts of food; I caught a picture of him on a high wall in the entry to the fort. Within the fort, the palace complex is open, and contains some interesting features. Notable is a large forum or parliament, adjacent to the palace, with a ceiling supported by pillars and no walls. In the center of one side is an ornate raised platform where the emperor sat; below his platform is a lower platform where the prime minister sat; other ministers were positioned according to rank. All others in attendance stood, since it was forbidden to sit in the presence of the emperor. On either side of the Emperor's platform are grilled window openings behind which the queen and ladies of the court could observe the proceedings. The pillars are arranged in such a way that both emperor and queen could observe all who entered or left the courtyard. The pillars themselves have beautiful artwork, much of which is faded, as well as semi-precious minerals inlaid in marble, which still retain their full rich colors.

After visiting the Red Fort we visited the "Baby Taj," a smaller mausoleum with many design features similar to those of the Taj Majal, and the Tomb of Akbar. The Baby Taj has many pillars with semi-precious stones inlaid in translucent white marble. The tomb of Akbar is notable for its simplicity; a tunnel of white marble leads to the unornamented room where he lies. The most spectacular feature artistically is a filigree lamp made ofan alloy of a dozen metals. Architecturally, the acoustics are very interesting; a shout continues echoing for several seconds, and a sung or chanted tone resonates in a very beautiful way.

April 3, Taj Majal.

I had an unsettled stomach, so didn't get as much sleep as usual, but I got up as early as I always do and was ready to by the time the guide showed up at about six. It was a clear, pleasant morning under slightly overcast skies, and we walked quickly to the east gate, where a large crowd was already lined up. They don't let anybody in until 6:30, and they do a thorough pat-down of everyone, but I still managed to get in well before sun-rise. The sunrise was not spectacular because of the overcast and the ever-present smoky haze, but the first light of the sun still infused the translucent marble with a warm golden tone. Pictures taken right at sunrise make an interesting contrast with pictures taken a half hour later, and with pictures taken from across the river and from the hotel's roof-top restaurant at various times of day.

It is forbidden to take pictures inside the Taj Majal, but the most striking features are outside, including all the inlays in the translucent marble and the bas relief carvings. The building is octagonal, symbolizing the eight ways into paradise in Islam. Even tired and a bit under the weather I found it to be a stirring sight in the morning light.

After breakfast and some long-overdue coffee I finished packing, checked out, and began the long drive back to Delhi. The driver had a hard time finding the B&B; I think we may have circled it twice and he called for directions at least three times. It was worth it; when I arrived I found Mrs. Dass and her son and staff to be utterly charming, and their hospitality everything I could wish. Saubhag B&B is heartily recommended.

Other than catching a stomach ailment, possibly from something I ate at lunch but most likely from some water the hotel proprietor served us after the first day's sight-seeing, the only negative aspect of the experience came near the end of the first day. First, the guide promised to take me to someone who would explain the marble inlay process and show me the Star of India. It turns out the first place was a sales outlet for marble furniture and collectibles and the second was a jewelry shop - what he really meant was to show me a star of India. I was quite irritated - time wasted that I could have used in more productive ways. Then, after I had explicitly expressed a wish not to eat lunch at a tourist place, he took me to - a tourist place, where the sign advertised "Indian, Chinoise, and Continental food," the menu included the word "mild" for every item, and the bill came to an astounding (for India) $8.50. I know that the guide got kickbacks from all three establishments. After debating with myself I gave him a small tip, but I probably shouldn't have.

April 4 Delhi

Although it never got mucn worse, the stomach ailment persisted, and significantly dulled my enjoyment of Delhi. The fact that the weather was warming steadily didn't help. At Mrs. Dass's suggestion, I hired a knowledgeable taxi driver but not a guide, and spent a bit over half a day seeing some of the most important sights, including the Grand Mosque. I got some pretty nice pictures of that, and a couple of tombs of various emperors. At the very end, I took a walk through the Bodhi Gardens, a park with three monuments, a neat bansai exhibition, and lots of families and other groups picnicking - got a couple of pictures of groups doing a kind of line dance to Indian / modern music.

It is evident that the hot season is approaching - I had to get up at 1:30 to get to the airport for a 4:45 flight, and it was already more than comfortably warm outside - it never actually cooled off.

Because of illness plus tiredness, I don't think I was able to give India a fair chance. I did not find New Delhi to be nearly as chaotic as I was led to expect, and the mixture of highest of high tech with almost primitive farming and transportation is even more striking there than in Nepal, and very interesting. I feel bad that I was not able to allocate a week or so to visit a couple of the wildlife preserve parks, and to spend some time out in the villages.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Nepal, final phase

Nepal March 29 Kathmandu

Started out to do some sight-seeing in Kathmandu, beginning with the "monkey temple," a 500 year old Buddhist monastery on a steep hill with several hundred monkeys swarming around, not to mention peddlers and beggars. Spent a couple of hours there, then stopped by a cafe for some momo and some other snacks, including an interesting food that includes as a base something very like puffed rice - but quite tasty. Unfortunately, political realities cut our tour short - first, there is a shortage of gasoline because the government froze prices, whereupon most of the gas stations discovered that they are all out of gasoline - so Raj is more or less limited to the gas in his motorcycle tank until the freeze is lifted and supplies return to the market. Then, on the way home, we encountered a complete road-block. One of the parties murdered a member of another party, so the aggrieved party called a 2 hour strike and shut down all traffic in the neighborhood. Raj was able to find a detour, fortunately, but it took a half hour (and more of the already scarce fuel).

Nepal March 30 - Kathmandu

Today we hired a taxi and drove to several temples outside Kathmandu, notably Bakhtapur and Ghangu Narayan, both quite old and historical, with some very interesting sculptures, including a collection of erotic sculptures, each positioned beneath a larger sculpture of a god. We started in Durbar Square, which was the palace grounds before the monarchy was eliminated; now the palace is empty and appears to be slowly deteriorating from lack of maintenance. Facing the palace are three temples, all hundreds of years old. It was a very interesting day, but I have to admit I'm beginning to suffer a certain degree of temple fatigue. Four final days in India, and I can look forward to something quite different.

Nepal March 31 & April 1 - Leaving Kathmandu

Raj and his family have been very gracious in their hospitality during my stay here; his wife and children, Kajol and Kapil, have been very attentive to my welfare; Kapil has been friendly and curious about what I was doing with my laptop - sometimes to the point that I gave up on the blog and just showed him pictures. He was really fun, if only because of his infectious enthusiasm.

A bit about Nepali houses (I will upload some pictures of Raj's house within a week or two.) Most have at least a small patio / balcony on every floor and a fairly large one on the top floor; rooms open off a hallway connected to this, so every room has to be individually locked at night. Above the top floor is a flat roof patio, almost always with a small shrine where family members worship; on nice evenings this is used for parties; it is also used to hang wet clothing. Raj's kitchen includes a long, L-shaped counter with open space below - they currently store potatoes there - and a gas cook-top, along with a formica-type kitchen table where the family often eats. Houses are finished in bright, complementary colors. In both Kathmandu and Pokhara, nightly power outages are the rule, so it is also necessary to have a battery to charge during the day, that can be used for low-wattage flourescent lighting during outages.

I had an opportunity to reciprocate their kindness and hospitality when Raj suggested that I either take the entire group out to restaurant or fund the purchase of drinks and food for a community party. He seemed to favor the latter, and it seemed more interesting to me as well, so I enthusiastically agreed (we were on the second day's tour at the time) and phoned his dad to start purchasing vegetables and meat. The next day, March 31, we went downtown to use the internet and do a little business, and when we got home the meat had been purchased as well as the vegetables. All afternoon the entire family sat on the patio floor, peeling and chopping vegetables (and, ominously, more green chilis than LaJean and I would use in a year), then trimming and cutting up meat and fish.

I had expressed an interest in goat, which I've never had opportunity to try, but I had forgotten thatin many cultures naming an animal means the whole animal, excepting the hair. "Goat" in this case meant a collection of innards, mostly intestines, which Raj cut into very short sections, using an extremely sharp machete-like knife which he positioned, sharp edge up, on a cutting board between his legs. Likewise, "fish" included the heads, cut in half lengthwise. I don't know if I have mentioned it before, but the Nepalis, like the Cambodians, do not believe in "cutting nature at the joint" - they mostly just whack a chicken or fish into more or less bite-size chunks; consequently, eating involves careful attention to bits of bone, sometimes rather sharp bits. Since they mostly eat with their fingers, this is not as much a problem for them as it is for us fork-users, who often plunk a small piece in our mouths then spend 5 minutes trying to fish the bits of bone out, then grasp the main bone in order to chew off the bits of meat.

Inviting of guests seemed to be somewhat haphazard - Dhana showed up early, and he and Raj went out on the motorbike to get some beer, pop, and a liter of whiskey. Disappointinglyh, Dhana's wife and children did not come. After Raj and Dhana got back with the drinks, I heard Raj yelling to some workers on the nearby construction projects, and to various neighbors, to come on over. The first course was served before anyone else arrived. Electricity was still off, so Raj judged the beer too warm and, instead, poured whiskey in his, Dhana's, and my glsses - wary of all the alcohol to come I let him pour only about one finger in mine. Then one of the women brought me a small dish with some of the hot peanuts I loved, plus a small serving of two different curried vegetables. As usual, I was served first, and the others' plates arrived a bit later. (This is how they always do it - they never put extra food on a central table, but bring around seconds; usually the mother serves guests first, then the men, then other women and children; often Raj serves her later.

The peanuts were delicious , and I went back twice for more - based on the after-effects I may have had too many of them. By this time the electricity had come back on and Raj judged the beer cold enough to pour, so I finished my last small sip of whiskey and switched to (a small glass, probably about 2 oz.) beer. To my surprise Raj also poured beer in the others' glasses, on top of a quarter glass or so of whiskey - everybody but me kept drinking boilermakers all evening. After a bit, a second course of vegetable curry was served, on larger plates with the milled rice I had enjoyed so much in the center, and plenty more milled rice for 2nds. By the time I had finished a plateful of that, with a bit more curry and milled rice, I felt I had had a very adequate dinner - but the women were barely beginning to prepare the meat.

About this time, an odd assortment of people started arriving and being served plates of food - Raj didn't introduce any of them to me, and all but a handful ate their plate of food without talking much to anyone, other than a little with Raj, and left. One did seem inclined to stay, and ended up closing down the evening - a construction contractor, Raj later explained to me, supervising several crews busy on the surrounding building projects. About this time, Raj pressured Kajol and Kapil into performing - dancing to a tinny cd / radio set. Kapil was resistant, but Kajol, who is a very good dancer, after an initial show of reluctance seemed to enjoy the attention. Then the children, including Raj's younger sister and one of the younger adult women, got into a call and response type of song round with Dhana (who has a very nice singing voice.) He would sing a verse, then they would (with much giggling and merriment) make up a humorous response verse.

Thunder-clouds were building by the time the first meat was served - the fish, mostly cut into thin slices, breaded and fried. I ate a couple of pieces but didn't care much for the taste (it tasted like some species of bottom fish) and it was so bony I spent more time fishing small bones out of my mouth, and worrying about the potential headlines, "PSU professor chokes to death on fishbone). Apparently they're not that dangerous - all the others, including the children, ate the pieces with relish, fishing out only the very largest bones. Later in the evening the building contractor also ate two halves of a fish-head, using his teeth to scrape off the edible skin and flesh.

Second came a serving of the goat "meat" in a savory sauce. I ate a plateful of it but found it tough, not very flavorful, and what there was not all that good, so I declined further helpings. The chicken didn't show up until at least a half hour later; it was quite good and I ate several pieces before I realized I had alrready over-eaten - and Raj kept refilling my glass with beer. I sipped as slowly as possibly, so as to minimize the damage - which, I was beginning to fear, was likely to be severe.

After a while, Dhana and the contractor, who also had an excellent singing voice, began another song, about a wayward flutist, to which everyone who spoke Nepali provided verses. By that time lightning was striking the hill-tops and doing cloud-to-cloud on all sides, and it was rqaining quite steadily, so we had all moved in under the shelter of the 3d floor overhang. The song cycle went on for quite a while, then they started up a song game that involved making up a verse (probably comic) around someone's name; that person was then expected to get up and dance for the duration of the song. After an initial display of reluctance, I joined in, and ended up dancing alone, with Kajol and Kapil, Raj, and several times with Raj's mother, who is actually quite a kick. It was fun, but after an hour and a half or so, I began to be aware of my planned early rise, to get to the airport in time to make it through all the check-in formalities, and started making the kind of motions that, I hoped, would lead to closing the party down. Raj said if I was ready for them to go I had to give them a little something more, and explained, buy another beer. So I gave him a 1000 rupee note and he sent Kajol out with it - unfortunately, had an accident on the way home; I think the flimsy little plastic bag they put it in split, and one of the beers she bought broke. Still, one was ample for a final round of toasts etc.

As I feared, after a lot of beer and not much water, accompanied by a lot of very rich food and a lot of chilis, I awoke dry and with an incipient headache at midnight; got up and drank a bunch of water. Then I awoke a couple more times with mild diahorrea, I'm sure the result of too much rich food, so I didn't get much sleep and was pretty groggy when I got out of bed at 5. Raj's wife was beginning her period again, so he was doing all the cleaning up in the kitchen - "where I came in" but I assured him I did not need him to accompany me to the airport. He summoned a taxi, and traffic was mostly light - but on the way to the airport, we saw a tow-truck pulling one of the busses out of what looked like at least a five foot deep ditch. Had to happen.

Overall assessment. Nepal is a study in contrasts: Some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, and some of the most polluted air, water, and land I've ever seen. Lovely, gracious people, and grinding, all but hopeless poverty. Pollution: The guide-books I checked implied that foreign trekkers are responsible for the discarded water bottles, etc., but in my observation the Nepalis themselves are the worst offenders. There are no rubbish bins, which is part of the problem; they think nothing of chucking a used container in the street or into a stream. When the litter builds up, someone may sweep it into a pile and set fire to it, plastics and all, which helps explain the chronic eye irritation and runny nose I've experienced here. Every stream-bed is filled with cast-off items; people wash their clothes in the streams, using both soap and detergent. While hiking in Chitwan, I saw Govinda and one other guide picking up as much litter as they could carry; otherwise, no-one seems to care. Traffic: Think of everything you've ever cussed "California drivers" (or New Jersey or your favorite other-state) and it happens routinely here: crowding in front, turning across several lanes of traffic, stopping in the middle of the street to load and unload... I think there is a commonly understood pattern but it isn't evident. Raj provided a partial explanation - if there is an accident the presumption of fault goes to the person who was even marginally behind; that explains the jockeying to have at least a headlap ahead of the other vehicle, and the retreat when one is out-maneuvered. If I get a chance I will probably return, but if I do I will spend very little time in Kathmandu or Pokhara - just enough time in Kathmandu to visit Raj's family. Raj has suggested some other treks, that would take one out to semi-isolated villages as well as into the foothills of the Himalayas, and be a lot less crowded with other foreigners that I will consider next time I have time free for this kind of trip.

My guides were quite good. I had some difficulty communicating with Raj, and he seemed to go more on his prior assumptions than on information I provided, but as my brother pointed out, an outfitter or guide in a place like that has to deal with an entire range of tourists, and most of them are probably neither as self-aware as I nor as honest about their actual level of capabilities; he's shooting at a moving target. To be perfectly truthful, I think that qualifies as part of the "adventure." Staying with him and his family in Kathmandu was a tremendous treat - a real chance to see Nepali culture close at hand, and they are all lovely, gracious people. Based on comparisons with other trekkers, I don't think more than one in 10 of the other guides are as knowledgeable and service-oriented as Raj. As for the commercial, large-group treks, I personally would not enjoy them. They tend to stick to their own group, don't interact much with either local people or trekkers from outside their group, and they tend to move at the pace of the slowest member. My own feeling is that a group of 3-5 would be ideal - and frankly I enjoyed being a group of one. I also feel the porter Raj selected, Dhana, was superb, and I will separately post something about his situation and his need for help to keep his children in school. Finally, Raj is knowledgeable about a range of Nepali and Indian foods, and did a super job of giving me a chance to try out a range of very interesting food.

Govinda was also head and shoulders above the other Chitwan guides. He knows the habits of the animals, and knows where and when to look to have the best chance of seeing them. He was unfailingly considerate of my wishes and needs, and his suggestions were always good. By setting up and taking me on a 4 hour hike the first day, he got me untangled from the couch-potato oriented standard package and did much to make my visit a success.