Monday, 21 July 2014

The port of Rotterdam

Almost every day, Timur takes a 23-meter tanker to work in the port of Amsterdam When he does so, he is by himself. Today we are on the 50-meter version of the same sort of tanker, and it is necessary to work with someone else for the time period of the navigating. While it is not impossible to do everything alone, doing so would be hazardous. Steering it is not the problem, as long as you stop to get enough sleep. Indeed, you see enough ships of a hundred meters or more floating past, with only a single man in sight, as if supernaturally piloting the colossos in front of him all by himself from the steering hut. It is mostly when mooring that you need to be more than one person.

The trip to Rotterdam over the river Maas

We arrived in Rotterdam last night, and docked on the Nieuwe Maas river somewhere to the West of the city centre, near the cruise terminal where we were going to go to work in the morning. In the night, when we arrived, Rotterdam looked like a sci-fi city with its innerly illumined high rises, its garish city lights and gaudily lit bridges. Under a smoky sky, the city hunched around the drawn-out, liquid black hole of the river. The water which the ship ploughed was dark like liquid tar, impenetrable.

We came to Rotterdam all the way from Amsterdam via an angled connection of canals. First, a piece of the Amsterdam-Rhine canal took us south up until and beyond Utrecht, where we turned west onto a short canal bringing us to the Princess Beatrix locks. There we were lifted up a meter or so, enabling us to join the Lek river on the other side. From then on we travelled on natural waterways, the Lek and the Nieuwe Maas rivers with their naturally scraggy fringes, which made our trip so much more picturesque. The whole trip took us some eight hours. We moored in Rotterdam at midnight, and got up at six again. It was a short night.

Just as I stumbled up the stairs into the steering hut, groggy from having been shaken out of my sleep too early, the metal monster of the cruise ship we were going to work on floated past us. The leviathan was an impressive sight of steel and glass in motion. Further down the river it slowly turned, as if fully aware of the grandeur of its deck gleaming in the morning light, executing the closest movement a thing like that could to wagging its ass on a catwalk. It moored on the Wilhelminapier, a pier headed on one side by a beautiful Art Nouveau building still flaunting the big letters of the Holland-America Line on its front even though the old headquarters now function as a hotel. At the other side the pier was flanked by the Erasmusbridge, a modern cable-stayed bridge which was built in the mid-nineties. Most of the highrises behind it dated from the same decade, or were even more recent. The entirety of what can be seen today in that area came into being thanks to an ambitious building projected blueprinted in 1993. It ran through 2010 and transformed this so centrally located port area that had been nothing but an abandonned wasteland.

Old advertisement

The said former headquarters of the Holland-Amerika line is the sole historical building in this part of town, the only one around here that survived the Nazi bombardment of World War II. Did the Germans spare it on purpose? This building is now dwarfed by postmodern neighbours and looks small and negligable. Nonetheless, at the time it was the nerve centre of a lot of important economic activity. This may be the reason why it was left standing. "The avation attack was actually canceled in the last minute. But the war planes were already flying, and when the German pilots saw the red fire signals being shot from the ground that had been agreed on as an order to turn around and cancel the bombing, some of them did not believe that that really was the case. They thought maybe the other side had found out about the code. So, while some war planes did turn around, the majority went through with their original command",Timur, who read a lot about WWII, shared some of his knowledge. The Nazi bombardment is the well-known reason why Rotterdam is one of the few Dutch cities missing their typical quaint old town centre. It is often joked that Rotterdam wins the title of the ugliest city of the Netherlands single-handedly.

The ship we came on is a tanker whose purpose is to take sludge, the mixture of dirty water and used oil, from other ships and bring it where it can be cleaned. Today we were going to connect the pumps to one of the Holland-America line's cruise liners. I typed their name on the internet and found that they advertised cruises to “Alaska, Europe, the Carribean, Mexico and the rest of the world“ for the reasonable price of a couple of thousand of Euros a week.
Only 500 meters from where we were right then, one of their old steamships lay anchored: the Rotterdam V, built in 1959. We had passed it and taken a good look at it just five minutes ago. In the 1960s the Rotterdam V was still used as a regular line vessel for sea travel to the Americas. It was to be the last ten years before plane travel became accessible to everyone. The ship was taken out of service only in 2000. At that time already for decades, namely since 1971, it functionned to indulge rich people's fancies as a cruise liner. Right now, after a few years of renovation, it remains perpetually docked and houses a museum, a restaurant and a hotel.

This is how the harbour patrol says "hello" to the cruise liner passing through its port.

When hitchhiking I have talked to many people I would have otherwise never got the chance to talk to, for example many people more than twice my age. Once I spoke to someone who had travelled to America by sea when that was still the standard. From what this person told me, travelling to America was reasonable fun and kind of interesting. You used all the free time you had to explore the huge ship you were on with its on-board cafés, bars and restaurants, and gyms and swimming pools. It was on the way back, when you knew its inner world by heart, that the two weeks on the water would be spent in mind-numbing boredom.

We approached the MS Rotterdam, the modern cruise liner on dock today, with our much smaller tanker from the stern of the ship. There was a flurry of activity behind a glass wall inside its lower part, as the sailors in their bright orange hard hats were still busy tying down the ship. That meant we were in for some waiting before we could tie up to the significantly larger vessel ourselves. The ship, which could accomodate over 1,600 passengers in luxury cabins, plus 100s of staff members in less luxurious conditions, measured over 200 meters in length, and a few tens of meters in height above the water line. It was so much larger than us, the comparison of a baby tied to a woman's back would not really hold. The size proportions were more like ... a large potato tied to a woman's back. So while I still think about a better comparison, I post this anyway.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Of Soft-Porn, Sheikhs and Dunes

After having spent a good two weeks in Teheran, I travelled north-east of the country. This was the end of my third day of hitchhiking, and I had just arrived in some town whose name I do not remember. What I do remember is two guys on a scooter stopping next to me at the kiosk. When in Western Europe youth press "pause" on a movie and leave the house, it is usually to go get more beer; in Eastern Europe it might be to get another bottle of vodka. In Iran you have no such extravagance of choices, so when you pop out of the house with your friend in tow, it is to get some lemonade!
The two boys were about 20 years old, and seemed nice and fun to be around from the moment we first exchanged a few words. When they found out I needed a place to stay, they invited me home. I do not remember if one took me on the scooter and the other one walked back, or if I walked together with one of them, while the other one rode the scooter. Inviting someone of the opposite gender home is a crime in Iran, so maybe taking the scooter was the fastest and thereby safest option. It is even possible that we squeezed ourselves onto the thing with the three of us, I honestly cannot recall.

When I arrived at the two boys' house, I noticed a cross on the wall, the kind that, as usual, was sporting the old dying man in his underwear. My two hosts told me lackadaisically that in Islam Jesus was revered as well, not only Mohammed. But as a teacher of mine once remarked, displaying the signs of another religion in one's home in such a strictly Islamic country also counts as some kind of rebellion against the state. Meanwhile, the two boys asked me to take a seat on either the couch or on the carpet; given the choice of which I selected the former. As a Westerner, having been raised in an environment of chairs and couches all my life, when sitting on a carpet I quickly seem to lack the place to stow my legs properly once the old tailor seat gets boring. It feels more comfortable to sit in a way where I can let them dangle. The boys themselves slumped down on a pile of cushions right in front of the television and excused themselves, but they had just been watching a video, and they wanted to finish watching it, even though I was there now - was that okay? They seemed to ask this question with a somehow exaggerated degree of mindfulness, whose purpose I got to understand, however, as soon as they switched on the VHS player: the tape in question was a soft-porn from the 70s, of some or other European origin. It had not been dubbed, and actors spoke either in German or Swedish. Language was not really important though, as you can imagine. The setting was historical and everyone was wearing some sort of musketeer-capes draped over their naked shoulders with absolutely nothing else underneath. The whole situation may have been strange, but my hosts managed not to make me feel awkward or uncomfortable at all. It was perfectly clear they had nothing else in mind but to continue being perfectly respectful towards me, so the whole thing really just seemed quite comical. There I was with two boys a few years younger than me, whom I had just met about 15 minutes earlier, and we were watching people imitating fucking on screen. "Why not?", I thought, and put my feet up. My two hosts remained courteous and forthcoming the whole time that I spent with them. They fed me dinner and breakfast, and made some tea for me before bed time. We all slept in the same room on the ground.

The next morning I set off again. My plan was to visit a pair of mausoleums housing the graves of two holy sheikhs somewhere on the countryside, away from the last villages before the Turkmeni border. Its setting sounded dramatic in the description awarded to it by the guidebook. Since I am a great fan of impressive landscapes, I had to at least attempt getting there somehow. There was assuredly no public transportation going that way, but I wanted to try my hitchhiking luck. The one thing I like about hitchhiking is that you do not have to set yourself any limitations : where there is a road, there will be cars, and where there are cars, they can take you along. This holds true even if there is a vehicle only once every 24 hours, or even less often than that; you just need to arm yourself with the corresponding amounts of patience. Sooner or later, every hitchhiker learns that it can be said that the rarer the appearance of any type of vehicle is on a certain piece of road, the higher becomes the probability that each single one that passes will actually stop for you.

I had read in the guidebook that the only place to sleep near where I was heading was a pension on a sort of ranch owned by a certain Madam Firouz, an American who had been married to an Iranian man and lived in the country for thirty years. She asked 30 dollars a night, which was a huge sum for Iranian standards. “Sleeping in one of her herders' yurts by yourself surrounded only by the steppe is an experience out of the common, and the high price is meant to keep it that way”, the guidebook explained. Even though I was kind of curious, the whole thing was a little too expensive for my taste, and I decided that, as always, I would just see which family would put me up for the night. As a Westerner travelling in Iran, you can pretty much count on someone taking you home to their kids every single evening. I was positive I would not have to fall back on paid accomodation.

I made a few dozens kilometers that day, and by the time the sun sank toward the horizon I had arrived in a village quite near the mausoleums that I had read about. Not having been approached by locals and not really knowing what else to do, I went to the village exit and put my thumb out a last time for the evening, trying to get a lift yet a little further. A guy had seen me walk through the village and drove his car up to me, even though he was not actually going anywhere. He introduced himself as Ahmad. Having done so in pretty good English instilled a certain degree of trust in me, knowledge of a foreign language often being a sign of an open mind in a country where this remains such a rarity. It seemed Ahmad just wanted to chat for a bit. One of the first things he said was, “you are foreign? I know another foreigner!” and after we went for some tea in the only tea shop of the small village, we drove away to meet the very Madam Firouz about whom I had read earlier. She lived a few kilometers from the village. Dusk had already descended over her homestead by the time we shook hands. She seemed to be over sixty, wearing her grey hair in a swank short style, and she was casually dressed in jeans and T-shirt as she greeted me in front of her two-storey farm house. As she told me she simply refused to wear a headscarf, the land amid which her farm was set was pretty big anyway, and the police never came here. “I've lived on this farm since before the Islamic revolution in 1979. When the change of power happened and the first policemen came to complain about my attire, I told them to get off my land, and that was the end of the question. Anyway, by now I am so old that it is not necessary anymore for me to wear a headscarf according to the Quran. It actually says old women are exempt from purdah. Yet, the Iranian state enforces this law on elderly women as well.”
Madam Firouz, whose name means "Madam Turquoise", served dinner for me and Ahmad, whom she seemed to know well. The two of them chatted leisurely in Persian all throughout the meal. When sleeping time came she said I could have the entire upper floor of her house for myself, leaving it up to me to pick the precise place where I wanted to crash. “I can bring you a cot and a sleeping bag for one of the yurts as well, but quite frankly, you will be more comfortable if you stay inside for the night”, she remarked.

The next morning Ahmad picked me up as he had promised, and together we drove to the holy place in the mountains that I had read about. The ride started off seeming long and monotonous, taking us through a lifeless dessert landscape of pebbles and sand. There was hardly any vegetation. When conversation ran dry, Ahmad let me drive his car for a bit. I had never before sat at the steering wheel of a car and it was as fun a place as any for a first driving lesson.
Soon after we swapped places again, the dust road began taking us through what ressembled a maze of valleys created by slowly rising hills that seemed fluid like dunes.
It did not take long and we arrived at the feet of the two mausoleums. Having parked the car, we got out to walk up one of the narrow paths leading to the top. Suddenly, we could see over the landscape through which we had travelled to come here. This change of perspective procured an awe-inspiring view. It was as if we were at the centre of a billowing sea of sand-coloured earth stretching out infinitely to all sides in frozen, pale waves. I had never seen anything like it before, and was never to see anything comparable again. To one side, just on or beyond the misty horizon, lay the nation-state Turkmenistan, as I was informed by Ahmad and an outstretched finger.

I took a picture just so that you can quibble with my usage of superlatives

I can say that this visit of the mausoleums with Ahmad, and the few days that followed, which I spent in Bandar-e Torkeman invited by a family of mother, grandmother and adult daughter, bring together some of the most beautiful travel experiences I have ever had. Maybe, if I had to pick one episode, this little trip around Iranian Turkmenistan was the most beautiful leg of a trip from among all the travelling I have ever done.
I tried to write about this adventure a couple of times already over the past seven years since it happened. Somehow I  was struck mute each time that I sat down at the keyboard. You just cannot bottle up “magic” that easily and pour it onto the page. This, at long last, counts as my final attempt.

Those few days in Iranian Turkmenistan had all the ingredients that are capable of elating me: amazing landscapes, overwhelming hospitality, and even the most physically handsome people I have ever met. I honestly think that Turkmeni women from Bandar-e Torkeman in North-Eastern Iran are the most beautiful women in the world. Never again I have seen headscarves of the same intricate beauty as on Bandar-e Torkeman's market and the heads and shoulders of its women, not even in Pakistan and Kashmir.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Paris catacombs

It's Sunday afternoon and I am walking on the abandonned train tracks of the Petite Ceinture, the « Small Belt », a circular railway that in the 19th century was built to go along the inner side of the city walls of Paris, long taken down since then. Having been closed down at the beginning of the 20th century, most of the railway has been abandonned since then, and has become an overgrown place of verdant quiet, a place a little outside the law, of freedom from the city noise and its shops and cars and cops. I am not alone today. On a sunny spring afternoon like this all sorts of revellers come here to walk around with drinks in their hand and chat and take pictures of each other. Groups of hipsters are posing for each other in the sun. Two guys are spray-painting a part of the wall, graffitis being a common sight here. As for me, I walk straight on and soon enter the damp darkness of the railway tunnel in front of me. I have to switch on my headtorch here. Some 200 meters further on there is a hole in the wall with a tunnel behind it, an entrance to the Paris catacombs. That’s where I am heading.
La Petite Ceinture

I duck and enter the rather low, first gallery. The catacombs' stale breath envellopes me. I notice that the tunnels carry the smell of the day after a party. It is strange how you can define that right  at the entrance in the south of the network, while I know the party to have taken place in the north, almost two hours walk from here. The network of galleries just does not let escape the characteristic smell of the sweat and CO2 exhalation of more than a hundred people in a confined underground space, the prickly acidity of a few hours old piss in corners, the insipidity of wine whose alcohol has evaporated, and neither have the acrid rests of smoke bombs completely dissipated in the air yet. Above my head the earth is shaken by the dark rumours of the metro. On « Jourdan Boulevard » I meet a group of people coming my way. When I first apperceive them from afar, the only thing that can be seen is the reflection of the light thrown by their headtorches onto the water surface of the puddles on the ground. A couple of minutes later, as we approach each other, sound also travels. I hear the rhythmic marching as the three of them are wading through the water which I know to be knee-high where they are. Shortly after, the dark gurgle of music from a boombox wafts over to me. Presently, I can see them stop in the distance, they probably have just noticed me, too. I imagine that they try to figure out whether I might be part of a police team or not. It is the most common preoccupation cataphiles have when discerning the presence of others in the distance without being able to know for sure who they are. The days when the catacombs police carried special lamps that distinguished them from afar are over. They have started to adapt, and they now use the same headtorches as most cataphiles do, making themselves indistinguishable from a distance. The girls and guys across from me in the gallery need not worry, of course; I am not out to hand fines to anyone. As for me, I felt reassured the moment I started hearing music. I know for sure the police do not carry boomboxes around, so these people in the distance are just cataphiles like me. Both groups of us decide to move forward and get nearer each other. They are three guys, one of them lugging along that boombox emitting dark, thumping music on his shoulder. When we meet we exchange a greeting, then I pass into the darkness that they came from, and they pass into the one behind me. They seem to have had a good time, they were covered in mud from curly head to booted toe, faces smeared and all. 

I take the "Green Way" in the direction of « the Beach », one of the biggest, most popular rooms, adorned by a large mural inspired by the famous Japanese painting « the Wave ». Oftentimes this is a place where you run into others, but this time I am alone. I light a couple of candles around me so I can do without the harsh light of my headtorch, and I open a beer. I am happy in my solitude. I love being underground. The silence frees my mind, and helps me think.

La Plage - "The Beach"

I have finished a second beer before I get up and start making my way further North in the network. At a certain intersection I hear a dull thud, like stones falling, people seem to be working near here. I need to turn to the right, on Dareau street, but I decide to check out what is going on, and turn left in the direction of where that thud came from. A girl and a guy seem to be repairing a hole in the wall. I ask what is going on. « On the maps an old room is indicated here, so we opened the wall to see what is behind there. But we saw that the 'sky' has collapsed, so we are filling the wall back up. » The « sky » is the technical word used in French to mean the "ceiling" or "roof" of an underground room or gallery. We bid each other good-bye, and I continue my way on Dareau street.

Those galleries which have names (not all do), often carry names that exist on the surface as well. 'Sarrette street' in the catacombs, a narrow, snaking tunnel, is situated beneath the outlines of straight, broad 'Sarrette street' in « real life », up there, out in the daylight. But as for, to take but one example, La Voie Verte, 'the Green Way', which is another essential axis connecting some of the most important places in the southern part of the Network : on the surface a street of the same name existed a bit more than half a century ago, but it has now been renamed. Here, as elsewhere, the catacombs preserve a part of history.

What today is the network of tunnels that are the catacombs, hundreds of years ago was just one wide open space, an underground quarry from where stones for buildings on the surface were taken. Under some odd old French King or other, already some 300 years ago, the realization was made that the empty space down there would need to be consolidated, or else the risk of collapse would be too great. That is when, step by step, the tunnels were made that we see today. Every few meters in the catacombs, there are slabs with engravings indicating either an exact date for the consolidation of the gallery, or at least the year, 1816  for example, or 1777. The coolest thing is when you can still see the handwriting of the workers of the time on the stone next to the slab. When, in black chalk, a worker scribbled the date and some other now illisible notes onto the wall, marking the place before the actual slab came to be set. In some places the date is marked not in Christian years, but in the old Republican Calender that the French used after the Revolution from 1792 until 1806 : it used a letter indicating the month, and a single or double digit number for the year (for example G17, which would have been some time in spring 1809).

The official catacombs were made up prettily with the help of some medieval French people who donated their heads for it

There is an official part of the catacombs, which is legal to be visited; it is one of Paris's tourist attractions. If I have not been there yet, this is mostly due to laziness. I am sure if they have seperated that particular part of the catacombs to make it accessible to the public, there are good reasons for this. A visit should be very interesting, although lacking in adventure of course it would be. Personally, I prefer this -walking down here. I have walked quite a bit now  in my solitude, when above me I see what we call « cat holes » down here. I climb up, and crawl through the opening and into a small room, which I discover for the first time. Between two stones I see a leaflet rolled up. I take it, and read :

« Beyond all light, in an obscurity more profound than the Shadows, there exists a holy place. The journey there is not an easy one, it has its number of hazards on the way, and only a selected few will set foot there. You need to traverse the Big Network of the South, whose reputation does not need to be established anymore. […] If you are here, among us, it is that the labyrinth has accepted you, and that it considers you worthy of itself. »

 The text has its own style, mystic and musical, laced with an elitism that, however, displeases me. It is signed « Styx ». He is one of the cataphiles of the old generation, those who have been roaming this underground world already for 20 years. I have met the guy before, he is a talented writer of leaflets and an avid collector, too. The leaflets people distribute in this manner, by hiding them one at a time into recesses in rooms and down galleries in the catacombs, contain texts and images, photos or drawings. Some people are very artful and creative and put a lot of thought into theirs, so there is a reason if many cataphiles put effort into preserving them. Right now I slide the leaflet I just found under plastic to protect it from dirt and humidity and put it in my bag. The smarter ones of those who make leaflets put them under plastic to begin with. Paper has a short life-expectancy down here, humidity and fungus beginning to eat away at it within a few days; give it a week or two, really, and the stuff begins to properly decompose.

After a while I decide to get going onto my way back out. For this I have to head down to the south of the network again. Approaching an intersection with an opening onto a room called Byzance at its side, the shine of candle light hits my eyes. Company ! In the past, Byzance, which was made from a pile of rubble at the beginning of the nineties, used to be the one central place where everyone met up. Five years ago still there used to be an old bakelite telephone here under the earpiece of which people would leave written messages for each other. This is the only way you can communicate over a distance in the catacombs, because, be assured, mobile phone networks do not work down here. Years ago, if you came alone to the catacombs on a weekend, you could make your way to Byzance, hang out for a bit, and you would not be lonely for long, because without fail sooner or later other people would materialize. Nowadays this function has been taken over by a room called Sarcophagus not far from here, named for the shape of the stone table around which it is built.  It is a little more out of the way from the main thoroughfares as Byzance, which, despite its central location, is mostly empty these days.

I am curious who I will meet this time, and I step inside the room with the words, «there is people in Byzance ! » by way of  a greeting. I promptly get an answer, « yes, there’s me » a voice resounds from a dark corner. Having switched off my headtorch, I have to blink to see that it is a guy in military fatigues and a beard, his long hair tied back in a pony tail. « Did you come down a long time ago ?», I ask. « A long time ago, I don’t know. It depends what day it is. »-« It’s Sunday evening »- « Oh, in that case, yes, I came down a long time ago; on Thursday, in the afternoon.» As we talk I find out that he nicknames himself Araignée, Spider. In the ensuing conversation he makes it clear that he deserves that name, being a master climber with ropes. He has many climbing stories to tell as well as from above the earth, as from artificial and  natural underground worlds. These underground networks, in a certain way, are his webs. Other cataphiles by the way have nicknames like Bacchus, Nexus, Spider, Smoker, Kafka, Straw-hat or Rum. Originally a crowd of white men with extreme rightist views –to pretend that this was not the case would be lying-, this small, narrow world is changing. Thankfully, the new generation of cataphiles which has started to explore the networks of Parisian catacombs since the end of the 1990s includes many women, and people of all sorts of origins, not only white, "genetic Europeans". The catacombs are for all of us.


To get back out via the exit that gives onto the old train line I have to traverse a gallery inundated hip-high with water. When no one passed through it for a many hours the water can actually be clear, giving off an eery light blue colour in the light of your headtorch. Not today of course. It is opaque from countless whirls of mud that have not had time to settle since the last group of people passed. This part of the catacombs is called Banga. It is named after a French advertisement with cultstatus from the 1980s in which a young boy goes on a quest to the fridge in order to get his favourite lemonade. He has to traverse a narrow hallway which suddenly fills up with water hiding a crocodile; he also has to duck to avoid getting hit by flying tree trunks. « Banga » is the name of the lemonade brand. When the water first appears, the  boy climbs the walls by jamming his feet against them and moves forward with slow movements using his hands as well. He does this in exactly the same manner as cataphiles often do in inundated galleries when wanting to avoid getting wet. Myself, I do not even try to avoid the water right now, I just wade through it. In order to be able to do that while staying dry, a considerable part of cataphiles wear hip-high rubber boots which are originally sold in specialized shops for river-fishing. But since temperatures are agreeable and steady, between 15 and 18 degrees, I usually do not mind getting wet.

I try to go down to the catacombs every week at least once when I am in Paris. I have been down there now countless times, maybe around 200 times over the past six years. The times I chose to come by myself can be counted on one hand. Most of the times we wander around in groups of two, three, five, seven, ten... There is no fixed formula. Sometimes we can be up to sixteen, or even twenty. I guess it is logical that on those sort of outings I do not feel inspired to take notes and write. It is the solitude which does that to you.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Hitchhiking Kurdistan - "Why are you alone?"

I was hitchhiking through Turkish Kurdistan, alone this time. Lift after lift through the stunning mountain scenery, of course people treated me with the habitual kindness and hospitality. More than once I got invited to food and drink. One recurrent thing that dampened the experience however was that, again and again along the road, people asked me, “why are you alone?” inciting me to justify my presence. It is just a small question, but it irks.  While “why are you alone?” is often just innocent surprise, in a culture which poses a lot of importance on community even this little question is sometimes actually formulated as a reproach.

A road through Kurdish mountains

Already in the travel classic "L'Usage du Monde", describing a trip from Europe to Afghanistan in the 1950s, Nicolas Bouvier recounts how the lady from whom his travel companion and him rented a room in Tabriz was very suspicios of the two. For her, you could not be welcome where you came from anymore, otherwise you would not travel so far from there. Surprising as it may be, this idea is still alive today in the minds of some people. And, as always, these kind of judgments are more harshly applied if you are a woman.
Often in the question "why are you alone?" a reproachful undertone swings along. It is rare, but it does happen, that this reproach gets explicit. To quote one man who took me up hitchhiking for example, he exclaimed several times: “What you are doing is wrong! You should not travel alone! It is just not normal that a woman travels alone!”
For what it is worth, that can give you an idea of people's mindset.

When people there in the villages asked "isn't it difficult travelling alone as a woman?",  if I was completely honest I would have to say to them that the most difficult thing about travelling alone is the constant attention it attracts, the fact that other people are paying so much attention to this detail (my gender) which takes little to no room in my own consciousness. What can be tiring are the little questions like this one, in fact, "isn't it difficult?". To have to explain that it is difficult not because, as they imagine, I am some frail and bedazzled creature who craves nothing but rose-scented fresh sheets to sleep on in the evening for her comfort, or that it is difficult because my body is just not made to carry that bag. But that it is difficult simply because I have to prove every time again and again that these kind of preconceptions are not true.
For a laugh I can tell the story of how, in Cizre, in the South of Turkish Kurdistan, I was taken to the shoe shop by two male hosts of mine. Of course they saw how I had arrived. They knew that I had travelled 100s of kilometers in those dusty cargo trousers and worn-out boots I was wearing, before meeting them. Yet, when we walked into the shoe store, and I headed straight to the sports shoes and sneakers, they shouted  "no, no, this is the men's section!" and waved me over to another shelf. That pumps would hardly be apt for my travelling style mattered little to them; their primary concern seemed to be that I did not violate the oh-so-important gender line.
        Now, if you expect female travellers to travel in high-heels, of course that can considerably slow down their progress, and maybe even their ability to carry their own bag, but I'll expound on that in another blog post.

Of course, the above is only the smallest part of the rampant prejudices and judgments doled out to travelling Western women, or women from anywhere, really.
When people inquire about simple details of a female travellers' life (her job, he family), they often try to figure out where to pose her on the virgin-whore binary. It is mentally exhausting to always have to explain what you are doing in terms as culturally transposeable as possible, to tread the right line hoping not to offend anyone, yet all the while not creating the wrong impression. To fill in apt answers to the intrusive questions into your private life that locals feel no shame to pose. And to bear the incessant criticism on the fact that you do not travel with someone else, preferably a man.

In many situations, people's reactions to encountering a solo woman traveller remain surprised and curious, but are not offensive. Unfortunately the more my language learning advanced over the past years, and the more time I spent in this culture, the more I started to understand details about which I was earlier blissfully ignorant. Suddenly I started hearing nuances in the questions people advanced that I would sometimes rather not have understood.
The question “why are you alone?” can be something like a congratulation on your courage, or honest, naive concern for you by people not used to see women travel at all. Yet ever so often, an undertone of suspicion swings in the voice of the person asking. “A lone woman? What is she doing? Is she a prostitute? Is there something wrong with her that her family repudiated her this way?”
“Why are you alone?” ever so often implies, “do you have something to hide?”
Women do not travel alone, at least not respectable women.

For me, the most difficult thing about being alone is this incessant questioning, and feeling like I have to continuously justify myself just for being there. But to explain to those who ask me this, that it is people like themselves who are the only ones really causing me a problem, is an endeavour that is near-impossible because of its circularity. Something which the people asking me are often too strongly culturally conditionned to understand easily.

Paradoxically, what I am actually explaining here is that learning to speak the local language fluently can be disadvantageous for the female traveller, at least in my experience. I blogged about an instance of this in an earlier post here. And it is not just about understanding. Another aspect of the complications arising is that now you have the linguistic abilities to explain in detail what you are doing. This can be nigh impossible because in practice there are enormous cultural barriers that are difficult to attack in a single conversation. You may quickly find yourself entangled in what can easily grow into a never-ending debate. And what is so tiresome about it is that basically what you are asked to do is trying to explain and justify again and again the sole fact of your mere presence.

In a culture as conservative as most parts of Kurdistan where men are extremely controlling of their womenfolks, a woman travelling alone could only be someone who was rejected by her family, or who is orphaned for example. That is why there sometimes is reason to perceive seemingly innocuous questions about my family as insults in disguise. The question “do you have a mother and a father?” is common in Turkey and surrounding countries, and is often posed with kind innocence as a way to speak about family members who are considered dear to all of us.
With my ear attuned to cultural nuances, however, in the slightly modified “do you have a father?” I can often hear the disbelief that any male mentor would leave a female relative of any kind travel so far by herself, if he cared about her.

Despite all this, I have my techniques when in Kurdistan: Beginning each conversation in my rudimentary Kurdish, a minority language in Iran as well as Turkey, is a way of appealing to people's local pride. This ensures I endear myself to my drivers instantly, which meant I am treated exceptionally, even when accepting a lift only with guys.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Picknicking at Osama Bin Laden's with a Western Whore

Not being able to decide on a story, -were we cousins twice removed, or were we in-laws?- my travel mate Waqar and I decided to tell this particular group of guys driving us the truth on one account -that we were not related by blood or marital contracts- but a lie on another one: We told them we were both Germans. "These guys don't speak any English anyway, they cannot even tell the difference between the sound of German or English", Waqar remarked. At that particular moment we came down from the touristy town Murree in the mountains, entering Abottabad in the plains.
I imagined that the group of men would be thinking, "where would two Germans on a holiday possibly go when in Abottabad!" and drop us of right at the new picknick place, the newly evicted house of the world-famous multi-millionaire and terrorist leader Osama Bin Laden. It was june 2011. Only a month ago the man had been killed in his hide-out by American military conducting a highly illegal action encroaching on Pakistan's state sovereignty.

In his youth Osama did the tourist himself, apparently on this picture he is the second from the right in a green shirt and blue trousers. From a visit of his family and him to Sweden.
Reactions to his death in Pakistan were very mixed, while most Pakistani citizens were repulsed by his actions, the man held appeal to some, especially because so many conspiracy theories about his true nature existed. His death caused another batch of these theories to florish. What was certainly ironic was that families from far and near started sreaming to his former residence every day so they could sit on patterned blankets and drink lemonade through straws from 33 centilitre bottles while comtemplating the building. We had heard that a small crowd of business-minded locals had put up shop selling snacks and souvenirs. I was ready to do the tourist and queue up to get my Osama Bin Laden commemorative spoon, all the while affecting to ignore the CIA agents said to be numerously milling around the place as well, still trying to figure certain things out as they were.

While I thought we would be taken right to the gates of Disneyland, the guys whose car we were in did not make that detour for our convenience. They let us out at the total opposite of town. We had to figure out how to make our way to the amusement park by ourselves. When asking for directions we were told that the only feasible way to go would be to take a taxi, so we hailed one down. It was Pakistan after all, and fares were not that expensive. What happened though was that after cursing through unknown streets for a while, we arrived from the wrong side of the street, the side where the military academy was situated that so famously flanked OBL´s former household. That very military academy that was so much fuzzed about by international observers for various reasons. They stated that an internationally wanted criminal hiding out in a building adjacent to such an institution for so long was highly unlikely. This is also one of the elements that made so many hair-brained theories spring up with locals ("could it really have been Osama Bin Laden?", "was he really dead?", "did the man exist at all?").
When the taxi driver stopped and said that OBL´s building was hundred meters from here, we did not think twice about where we might have landed. So, as soon as we opened the door and stepped out... - okay, as soon as I opened the door, and stepped out, pale and blue-eyed as I am, like a sore thumb, at once identifiable as a foreigner, I was spotted by the guards of the military academy. We were under immediate arrest from that point on. That much for my planned afternoon of picknicking. The worst was maybe that it had not been Waqar's idea at all, and I had got him into this all.

For the following few hours we were put into a small room, where we were interrogated in detail. Waqar figured out quickly that the rather friendly uniformed men we were surrounded by were from the army, whereas the men in civil clothing, invariably uncongenial and affecting to be highly suspicious about anything we said, were representatives of one of Pakistan's intelligence agencies. He whispered the fact to me with nothing less than terror on his face. Everyone around us was armed. The soldiers had their machine guns, while under the white, crisp shirts of the men in civil clothes the outline of harnesses with guns could be detected.
While the soldiers would have let us off the hook after twenty minutes' chat, the men in civil clothing were intent on keeping us much longer. They looked through all the pictures on our cameras asking questions about the people depicted. We tried to satisfy their curiosity as much as we could so as to assuage their suspicions about us, while not divulging anything too personal about anyone shown on the photos either. What was it their business? Waqar had to give his electronic mail and social media profiles and passwords, which was quite stressful for him, thinking of all the anti-state criticisms he liked to post on them. I tried to reassure him that the Pakistani secret services, of all secret services in the world, surely had higher priorities than queer activists, but it was hard even convincing myself of that in that particular situation.

Waqar was even more nervous than me, sometimes he was even shaking. "A few months ago, they found the body of a journalist who criticized one of the intelligence services. It was a big scandal all over the country. We must be careful, it could happen to us." It sounded paranoid to me, but then, my friend was the local, and it would be unwise to lightly dismiss his view of things. He even expressed the fear that they might put rat poison in our tea. I sensed he was overly scared and gave him as much of a reassuring half-hug as I could, the presence of mustachioed men with Islamic ideas about non-married people of different genders touching holding me back, even though our relationship was otherwise entirely non-sexual.
As for myself, I tried to maintain a certain degree of optimism. I kept thinking, "they will let us go soon". But it was only by ten or eleven that we were escorted to a hotel.
The worst point was probably, when, as we were checking in, one of the guys in civil clothing arrived at the hotel in his Mercedes with two other armed men. At some point during what followed, the second interrogation of the day, I called the embassy of my country in Islamabad, to inform them that something was going wrong. Yet, at about one o'clock he brought us to another hotel, lengthily talked to the hotel clerk, and left us.

Waqar's family was called every day for the following week to find out about his whereabouts. His family were also made to feel that they were under surveillance, as they were made to hear a beep as from a recording machine every time they picked up the phone. The first thing the intelligence service apparently asked Waqar's elder brother was,  "Do you know that your innocent, sweet brother is travelling with a Western whore? This is so completely unislamic, you should not let this happen!"

Friday, 28 February 2014

With the Christians of Antiochia

After a few days spent with the Alawites of Samandağ it was time to head elsewhere. Toward the evening I was on the road, quickly getting a lift out of town. The car that stopped for me was occupied by a married couple and their aged mother, a family of Christians. The man said he was a Bible-teacher, and would I like to meet the Christian youth he was teaching? There were many of them my age, I could come along with him the next day. I could not but agree. On the way home we stopped in a restaurant by a waterfall, just as night fell. Of course I was invited even though I had already eaten before leaving town. There was no use whimpering “gerçekten, gerçekten”, “no, but really”, they just stuffed me with mezze, be it houmous or roasted aubergine or bulgur salad, one dish more delicious than the next, until I basically had to be rolled out of the door. 

The man's name was Mihail, his wife's Hüsnya. He told me they got married when they were 18, to please their parents. "They said that we had to, so we did it. There was nothing to say against that, nothing to dispute. Today our children are freer." Two of their daughters and one of their sons are married to someone German or French. There is a fair amount of ethnically mixed marriages in emigration. The Arab Christians joyously get married to Europeans, whereas Alevite or Sunni Turks come back home to find themselves a co-religionist for a spouse, oftentimes someone from a neighbouring village in their home region, so as to help the community. What I found ever so slightly disturbing was that Mihail and Hüsnya had enlarged marriage pictures in nice frames of their three sons on the wall, but to find pictures of their three daughters they had to rummage through drawers.
The next morning, breakfast was delicious: Cheese as light as Aero-chocolate, melon as sweet and soft as caramelized butter. The hours until noon were spent reading on the rooftop terrace. There, the married couple dried tomatoes and grapes. As the sun dehydrates the fruit, the flavor components are concentrated. The more the raisins shrink, the sweeter they become; the more the tomatoes shrivel, the tastier they get. Of course, they are already delicious when fresh, nothing to do with the refrigerated, hormone-crammed stuff we buy in supermarkets in the West. Later I helped with the cooking, peeling vegetables with Mihail's mother and her friends. They only spoke Arabic, so I could not converse with the old ladies. Prettily gnarled hands washed rice, snipped away at beans and detangled small tight knots of garlic into diamond white individual cloves.

In the evening, it was time for Bible lessons. Before starting, Mihail showed me around the church. I was comfortably holding my arms behind my back, clutching my right underarm with my left hand, which I was surprised Mihail asked me not to do. Much later, in Russia, I was to read a sheet with instructions how to behave in orthodox churches where I found out this is indeed generally considered something not to be done. When finally in the class room, it took some time to fill up with kids, the ages reaching from early primary school age to late teenagers. One older girl had a rose tattoed on her biceps. Tattoos in this region seemed in fashion, especially among the Christians. Although I have heard before that the Bible condemns pictures engraved on skin, this prohibition seems less strong than in Islam where depiction of natural objects is frowned upon in general. Elsewhere in town I had seen young Christian men tattooed with tokens of their religious affinity, like crosses.
It was strange to hear Our Father, the prayer that all Christians whatever the denomination are taught as children, in Turkish, the seventh language that I learnt in my life, and the national language of a predominantly Muslim country. I did not associate with this “poem” instilled in me so many years ago, and which I could still recite in my sleep, with Turkish or Turkey up to that point.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Chickpea Las Vegas

On the outskirts of the Turkish Black Sea city with the strikingly Greek name of Samsun, I stop a car. It is a seriously beat-up, old Mercedes, and it is red. I have an instantly good feeling with the driver, however, I consider it the thing done to point out one detail to my travel partner before we are going to get inside: "I think this guy might be drunk", I turn to Jo. A smell of alcohol wafted out to me when he opened the passenger door, or was that an illusion? The man seems very nice, and he is going to take us a long piece of the road way into the evening hours, when otherwise we will have to stop hitching. We confer very quickly between the two of us before we agree. And really, he turns out to be a lovely host for the following few hours.
One of the first things he says  to us after we settle down is: "In this world we are all brothers and sisters. You can call me Hassan Baba!" Then, as a gesture of hospitality, he offers us a little present each: To me he gives a small plastic figure of an eagle, to Jo a collection of calendar pictures of birds, a fluffed up sparrow on a branch, a pair of prancing pheasants.

Most of the trip he talks on the phone to friends or relatives of his. He tells all of them excitedly of the "two tourists, travelling with a saz, from England!" (conveniently forgetting one of our nationalities), and repeating to each person how nice we were. Along the road this time I got some nice reactions for the fact that I was carrying a bağlama (or saz) with me, that prototypical of all Turkish instruments. People liked the fact that a foreigner was playing their national instrument a lot. When carrying it on the street, people would stop to start talking about their favorite singers. And while hitch-hiking, there was none of our nice drivers who did not remark upon it favorably.

Let this be a lesson to other hitchhikers, though: There was more than one point of the trip with Hassan Baba, when we plausibly could have died. One time it is of distraction, our driver's distraction, when he is not looking at the road, too preoccupied by searching for his cigarettes. We are only savecd because I have a package of cigarettes to fiddle out from the front pouch of my hoodie and which to thrust on Hassan Baba as quickly as possible from behind. Earlier that day, we learnt that the rules of Turkish hospitality stipulate if you answer in the affirmative the question if you want to smoke, the person offering does not hand you one cigarette, they foist a whole package on you, and certainly they do not accept any refusal. As Hassan Baba lights his smoke, Jo comments in a manner that is both jocose and observantly serious, "You were given these earlier to save our lives right now!"

That is already the second time we can say that our lives are at risk. The first time was about half an hour earlier. Unable to brake in time, we slid downhill over the wet road and past the red-lights of a busy crossing, with heavy lorries waiting on each side. I kept my body pressed back to the back rest, and only after we sailed safely to the other side I sat up with relief. We had avoided a crash awaiting us with some probability, and that could have been quite a bang.

Soon enough, Hassan Baba is talking on the phone again. I have a hard time understanding his Çorum accent, and the fast succession of words. He uses some of the same phrases again and again, but I could not make much sense of it. "There was a guy, a cousin of my father's he wanted to marry, it was love. He put all his money on a car, it was a big show off. ...But he exaggerated. She had to take him to hospital, you see. ... They never married, it did not work out."
I was reminded of one time, a long time ago, when I had just started learning Turkish, and some garrulous driver or other graced me with an unrelentingly fast verbalization of the stream of consciousness going through his mind. Trying to make sense out of what was said, I kept looking up words in my little hand-held dictionary as I went along: "Catapult", "primary school teacher", "dental floss". I was glad I had the little helper to hand, finally, it all made splendid sense to me.

  Hassan Baba in the meanwhile is driving in the middle of the road while keeping on speaking on the phone, flouting all traffic rules. Jo and I are still not sure if he is actually drunk, or if he is just a bit of a lovable weirdo. He also has a very bad cough, most probably exacerbated by his smoking, and is sporadically opening the door to loudly snuffle and spit clots of phlegm outside onto the road - in the middle of the motorway, needless to say.

Suddenly, in the dark, on the motorway, Hassan starts going very slowly. "I am running out of gas", he remarks explanatorily. His meter is broken, and even after he is to refuel, the needle is to point to the red area. In the case of a broken meter you have to count kilometers in your head  to see how much fuel you are using, and well, he seems to have neglected that task.
Running out of gas in the middle of a motorway? There is first times for everything! At least the "middle-of-the-street" syndrome is remediated this way, painfully slowly though that we are  creeping along, we are now at the side of the outermost lane. Traffic is rushing past us to the left.

The dilemma breaks out at exactly the least propitious moment: We have a long stretch of nothing but unlit, rainy road in front of us.
I count it as a stroke of luck, that the last bit of road is downhill. The tank had really hit rock bottom, and we let the vehicle slide. When the car grinds to a halt on the territory of the petrol station, but at the wrong pump, it´s the workers who push it along to the next fuel dispenser.

Jo has an endearing and understandable addiction to hot drinks in general, and an especially pronounced one to a particular one: Coffee. "Bulgaria was just paradise, there were coffee machines EVERYWHERE, even in the least expected areas. In random, residential areas of town, there would be absolutely no shops, but there would be a single standing coffee machine, just like that on the pavement!", she rejoices at the evocation of her memories."I hope where we are going, there 's coffee", is something that she sometimes says. When you remark upon the fact that she just had a cup, she says: "Well, I hope there is more coffee!"
So of course while the car is being refuelled, she takes the chance and gets a cup for our driver and herself (me, I was fine without one). Luck has it so they did not even make her pay.

''The speciality of Çorum are leb leb, so let me take you to the leb leb store!", Hassan Baba proposed. Leb leb - dried chickpeas, that would be. They are one of the most popular snacks around the country, eaten on religious holidays and distributed to guests at family occasions. When driving into Çorum, the main thoroughfare leading into the city centre is lined with shopfronts blinking garishly in the night with their screechingly bright neon-lights forming hearts, stars and arrows. Strip clubs? Casinos? No, the headings above their doors read LEB LEB. Welcome to Chickpea Las Vegas.

"I don't particularly like dried chickpeas", says Jo, "they make me feel like the dessert. They taste like talcum powder, don't they?" I could agree with that description. As for me, I am sometimes afraid they might crack my teeth in two, they are so hard.
We stop the car in front of one of the casinos, and go inside. "These are guests to Turkey from abroad! Let them try!", Hassan baba extorts the shopkeepers' largesse with a hint to traditional hospitality. Any self-conscious Turk cannot refuse food to a guest, and the shop owners smirk their consent. Hassan Baba turns to us and invites us with a sweeping hand gesture: "Serbest!" - "You are free to take what you want".
"I like his style", Jo winks at me, and with both hands we grab the goodies in front of us. Surprisingly, these particular leb leb are delicious! Cream-covered and looking like tiny birds eggs, or coated in pure chocolate and shiny and black like grapes, perfectly rounded, smaller than usual.
They may be dry like talcum powder or hard like pebbles elsewhere, here in Çorum from where they seem to be distributed around the country, they are fresh, and most palatable.
"I am going to look at leb leb different from now on", Jo remarks, clutching the small pack of simple, freshly roasted chickpeas Hassan Baba bought for us. Having just been roasted, they are still warm, and they are soft, but not powdery, melting like salty chocolate on our tongues.
After coming out of the first casion, we visit a second, and a third one, repeating the same show. We are almost stuffed as we stumble out of the third one. Almost. So we turn to one more. This last casino we visit, casino No. 4, sucks us into its glamorous world of fried almonds and chocolate-coated peanuts over a veritable red carpet and past a horse-statue (made of plastic though that it is).
Only after we are ejected out of this one our sweet tooth is veritably satiated and we head back to the car.

Hassan Baba drives us to the bus station, from where w take a bus through the night for the last piece of road. We are going to Ankara, to meet my friend Ümit.