Wednesday, May 30, 2007
Or that's what I innocently thought before I got to know Bissau better. In that unfortunate place of course it is safe to say that approximately everyone, is shady.
That night we the approached the floodlit rumble of the boat being unloaded -two dozens of Guineans heaving rice sacks off it, plus the Koreans onboard, plus, dozens of Phillipines hanging around at the side who were caught fishing within Bissau territory without permission.
Immanuel said I had better not talk to anyone, most of all not divulge my intents to anyone, since in case I got found out I would get instantly ousted and never let back again. I should have sensed that this was a filthy trick since today and yesterday the main problem really seemed to be the communication (I just do not speak any crioulo, you see) and people looking at me like an alien, but: looking benevolently, and lethargically, like they are not really caring, not like they were scheming of chucking me out any soon. This being Bissau everyone was just much laxer about any rules. The evening proceeded, me sitting by the side, him dashing off feigning to be trying to be making progress for my situation, ant the end Immanuel said "let's go for a drink with a few of the sailors, maybe we will be able to set you up with them". What he didn't bother to clear up was that "setting me up with them" was going to take on a rather different meaning than the one I had imagined. He'd left them under the impression I was one of his prostitutes.
While we were in the bar outside the port, he bought me many a drink hoping to blur my judgement of situation (he was not counting on my beer-weaned German blood obviously), then as we were walking to the town centre (to frequent more bars I innocently imagined), he suddenly staid in the back with one of them sailours and there was some hard negotiation going on as far as I could tell. When I realized just what they were negotiating about and the Korean that had just slid over the bills to my six-fingered pimp and came laying his arm around the exotic blonde fille de joie asking whether I knew the nearest hotel, it was of course not too late for me to shake him off.
I saved myself back to my place over a quickly improvised rat-run.There, I fell on my bed and analysed the night: For one, it seemed I almost got sold to far East Asia -so much for my trying to get local help involved.
I reckoned I had to change tactics.
(continued one post down)
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
As I said, I have never been one to be fond of those things. And that is why I will start the story with the relation of an escapade technically on Turkish territory, but close enough to the Iraqi side that it just takes a walk in the night, over the mountains, to arrive in the land where all roads lead to Baghdad.
Three years ago I had been here, and I remember looking out over very valley, musing about how close Iraq was, in figurative spitting distance, just behind that ragged mountain ridge. Şirnak apparently means “Town of Noah”, or so the Russian guidebook said. As fate has it, I find myself a second time clinging to the streets creeping up its steep slopes. Things have changed, in various ways. Buildings have shot up all over, and it is not as quiet as it used to be. The morning we leave helicopters roar overhead, orbiting the town, just like the evening before. We start on foot, walking out of town. The mountains look tame, like big sleeping animals and fog playfully lingers in the chinks in between the foothills under us. After a while we stop under an almond tree, and playfully start picking off some of its fruit which are still too small to eat, the little oval forms not bigger than a fingernail. Diligently, with index and thumb I split one in two and squeeze out the little translucent kernel.
We are still under the tree when a white VW bus stops. Once we get inside we move so much faster than on foot, it seems miraculous. We serpentine our way up and down a no longer static, but fluidly changing landscape. The trails of cows and goats bedeck the slopes of the mountains sidling up to the road, swinging up and down, creating elegant oval-shapes as if drawn by an artist’s hand. Watching the landscape is like leafing through a pack of postcards. The natural colour palette on show indeed must inspire any painter: Blots and bruises of brown and red daub the hills, different types of earth and stone. In between, suspended, the tentative green of spring grass.
And here and there the first lilacs in clean white bloom as if competing for a washing powder commercial. I feel like I may never tire of these mountains.
It is by the middle of the day that we deviate from the main road. You can almost hear the mountains creak and groan as they shift apart giving free a pass for the road that climbs up between them. Clear and white, writhing its way at the centre of this ravine, gushes forth a stream. At its water-soaked green banks poplars reach out to the sky with their branches almost vertical, parallel to their trunks as if to defy the height of the mountain tops around them. At the end, the far far end of the canyon, Uludere is an enchanted village whose houses have latched onto the carapace of the rock like oysters to the underside of an old boat on anchorage. We stop for lunch here and step outside into the fresh air. The mountains above us jag the sky like natural battlements. It is warm already, but on the top snow still lays, as if out of pure inertia, too damn lazy to transubstantiate into water and trickle away.
When the signs for restaurants have spelling mistakes in Turkish that even a foreigner can see, you know you are in deep deep Kurdistan. We enter the “lukanta”. The man heaping quivering hot rice onto plastic plates for us wears his thick cummerbund (in whose folds, I've been told, tobacco can very conveniently be hidden for smuggling) around that traditional Kurdish suit sewn out of one single piece whose name I still haven’t found out and that I keep calling "rompers" in my mind.
We take our time to savour sucking the meat out from between the hot, drippy cartilage and bony segments of spine that has been topped onto our rice, before heading back out into the day.
Uludere may be one of the most endearing villages I’ll ever see, but in 1991 it was the venue of humanitarian crisis. It was in this and neighbouring village where millions of Iraqi Kurds sought refuge, fleeing the Iraqi troops backlashing after the Kurdish insurrection three weeks earlier. Uludere certainly feels like the end of the world, but we still find an accentless German speaker here who, increduously that we should have come to this of all places exclaims: “You got lost! You should go to Antalya, that is what tourists come to Turkey for!”. And ten minutes later, even an equally accentless French speaker, a policeman who tells us to leave as quick as we have come, alarmedly -and surely with cause- telling me “C’est dangereux ici mademoiselle, c’est dangereux!”. Somewhat naively perhaps I just turn round to my friend Fyodor not bothering to translate, make a sign of the head and say “Let’s get going!”.
Trying to get onto the road again we have to wait for a short while only until we get a lift. The car that takes us on is a family’s car in which we take a seat in the back with the two rambunctious little daughters climbing and crawling over us. From the bottom of my bag I dig out some old strawberry chewing gum for them to suck on and make a mental note to buy some sweets for other prospective kids coming my way. We are behind darkened window panes and rarely have time to glimpse out so we only get to see puzzle pieces of this beautiful stretch of scenery we are curving about in: Gloomy dark shards of rock jutting into the clear blue sky, and in the distance black and white striped mountains, flashes of far away alpine vistas. On so many peaks near and far, the military are ensconced in eyries high above. Underneath them, caves creep into the rock face here and there like empty eye sockets or gaping mouths petrified in mid-scream. The streaks of tar inside the rock paint terrifying black grimaces onto it. At the entrance of villages, crowds of school kids disappear blue in our wake. Our driver tells us that here the frontier goes along the stream. I see children that are collecting sticks for firewood wading through the water and jokingly ask “so these kids are in Iraq right now?”. The couple drop us off at their village and we continue on foot until the next police stop. The military crowds around us and one German speaker tells me we cannot go on: The sun is already low, and after dark the area along the river-slash-border becomes a free fire zone, in other words the militias that are camping on the other side will shoot at anything that moves. Igor and I of course are little keen on staying the night with the military as they offer; “Yeah, and take a picture as a souvenir”, my friend jokes. Swearing we will take a lift before the sun goes down, they let us go. We still have some time and continue to walk on along the river for about half an hour. Indeed in the gravel on the roadside we find a couple of shiny bullets of which Fyodor and I both take one as a lucky charm. We enjoy the walk in the fresh air so much that we let pass a couple of cars and get a lift with the third one coming our way. They stop for us without us having so much as put our thumbs out. Unfortunately the car is too heavy with us and when its engine falters for the second time we decide to be polite and get another lift after we’ve helped pushing. Actually we have to insist quite a bit, because our drivers don’t like to be cheated out of hospitality that easily. Under greying skies we have reason to be worried about the promise we made back at the military check point, but luckily our next lift promptly materialises. We swing ourselves onto the back of a pick-up truck, and for a while will be shaken about uncomfortably, but also enjoying the views while the day's last dregs of light still linger...
The name of the village whose sticks and stones we are presently rumbling over is called Ortaköy, which means “Middle-Village”. Whenever the Turks run out of place names that is the generic one given to the characterless hamlets half-way along the road from here to there. There are at least 15 Ortaköys in Turkey for all I know so why not stop in this one? Our driver, a man with deep cut vertical furrows down his cheeks and long pretty eye-lashes, drops us off. Immediately, a crowd of men gathers around us, asking where we are going from here.:”Hakkari is very far, you will not reach it tonight!” They almost seem to get into an argument who gets to take us home. We are slightly amused as we watch them settle it between themselves. Finally we are led down a muddy, already nightly path to one of the houses further up from the river. We are exhausted from the long day and are happy to ply our legs and sit on the plush carpet in the living room. A little boy comes in and feeds the oven with fire wood. Soon his elder brother, a boy of maybe 13,14, brings in some tea on a silvery metal tray. We could not be more comfortable.
After the hours move on and the dishes with our large, delicious dinner have been carried in and out, the room slowly starts to fill with young men, the clicking of the little chains of prayer beads typically accompanying them, and only gradually also with the sound of their politely muffled chatter. We are obviously going to be the village’s main attraction tonight. For a while we embarassedly try to start a conversation with the snippets of Turkish we know. However, soon the grand design of the evening reveals itself to us: They brought in the village’s English teacher to talk to us. He is a young man of about 30 with halting English that way outperforms our Turkish. An evening’s Kurdish History 101 crash course seems to be planned. Thank goodness Fyodor speaks no English at all and just meets the English teacher’s greetings, exclusively adressed to him, with perfect puzzlement, so I get to usurp the conversation in perfect lady-likeness. I have to translate, it's as simple as that.
“We count ourselves as descended from the Medes. We have been in this area for many thousand years?”, begins the recital.”We know this, we know all this”, Fyodor and I can only keep affirming as our history lesson moves on from ancient times to Atatürk's implicating the Kurds in the Armenian genocide... Yes, the very Armenian genocide that is peddled as common knowledge in Europe but that the average Turk will still vehemently deny. An article of the Turkish constitution reserved for the purpose stipulates that journalists and teachers openly talking about the Armenian genocide in public will go and sit in prison for a while, so who can blame the brainwashed many? Today, in the good old Middle Eastern tradition of “My enemy’s enemy must surely be my friend”, Kurds and Armenians consider each other to be brothers, and each others closest allies in the region, nevermind the fact that, in an alternate not necessarily more beautiful reality where either a greater Armenia would be prying open Iran’s and Turkey’s shared border or a sovereign state of Kurdistan would be pushing those two away from each other, the Kurds and Armenians would be each others greatest enemies, each claiming half of the others’ land.
But we’re not really here to argue, so we keep these thoughts to ourselves and listen.
I have taken a liking to the red-faced, big-eared girl who has been sitting next to the wood stove while the room was empty, and who has now replaced the boy in serving us tea. She is prettier than I make her sound, really. In fact we are all perfectly red in the face in here; they have heated up the room to sauna temperatures after all. As the evening moves on, I cast a smile over to the girl from time to time to acknowledge that she is following our conversation. She is the only girl or woman in the room apart from me and I appreciate the female companionship. I am actually even fearful if we stop drinking tea she?ll be made to leave and so I gulp down glass after piping hot glass of tea, more tea than can possibly be good for you. I really want her to be able to stay.
Bored by the heated conversation in English I am having, Igor leafs through his travel book. The Russian guide book pisses me off infinitely in that it calls all Kurds terrorists. It actually ends its section on South-Eastern Anatolia with the line “And no one can say that terrorism does not have nationality?”.
Apart from jumping to conclusions of calling several Million Kurds terrorists from the fact alone that there is a certain percentage among them who engage in such acts, I also want to let Fyodor know why their resistance may be justified. All I have to do is tell Igor one anecdote, the story of how my friend Özel, a Kurdish democracy activist from Diyarbakir who found political asylum in France. It freezes the blood in my veins just to re-tell the end of the story: The moment that Özel walked into that police station, straight into the gaze of his brother’s blood-shot eyes. The boy was lifeless, pale as a sheet, tied to a chair, blood streaking his face and T-Shirt. He could not have died longer than a few minutes earlier from the heavy torturing. And yet he was only 16 years old and had done nothing. But the day the police had come to arrest Özel at his house, he himself was gone, so they took the younger sibling instead.
We have been asked what we think of the Chechen war. I tell them that I believe the second Chechen war was nothing but a war machine that was kept going because the Russian government was making money out of it, whereas the Chechnyans just wanted it to stop. I also added that Chechnyan terrorists are of a whole different calibre than their Kurdish pendants, the Chechnyans being fully worthy of the qualifier: the PKK only kill military these days, the Chechenians don’t think twice about putting civilians on a theatre visit at danger, or a school full of kids. Fyodor’s opinion is of the more predictable kind, I think. But what the people in this room are surprised to learn is that Russia has 160 nationalities. The implications for any independence movement in Russia of this are obvious. So I hope that they start to see the Chechen independence war in a new context.
I ask them back whether they have heard of Ngorno Karabakh. I am less curious about what they might think of it (because of course they would side with the Armenians), but if they have actually heard of it, that war just out over the limits of their radius. My suspicion seems to be confirmed: it seems like they haven’t. Our English teacher just mumbles something incomprehensible and seems to expect the next question. I am all too eager to tell them about the Ossetians, their linguistic brethren after all, but they seem not very interested. So instead I ask them how they will vote in the up coming elections. They shake their heads and explain themselves in an unexpected manner: “Barzani is a good man, we are happy with him as our president.” Indeed, the infrastructures are still so bad that even a hike across mountains included, it probably takes longer to reach Ankara than Arbil from here. They say they feel part of Iraqi Kurdistan rather than any other country. “It’s only over there”, they point with the finger out the darkened window where the moonlit sky delicately draws out the silhouettes of the paws of those big sleeping animals that are the mountains. One man named Lezgin asserts that he will make the journey tonight, smuggling fuel and cigarettes. I take my map out and ask him to show me where he will go. My map is rather crude unfortunately and the nearest village that is seen in Iraq is a place called Kani Masi. He puts his finger on it and says “Yeah, Kani Masi, I know that place very well!”. I secretely decide to visit that village once I will be on the other side. In fact Lezgin invites us to go there right now: “It is no problem, really. We take some good lamps and in a few hours we will be drinking tea with the Iraqi border guards! Don’t worry about a thing!” “Are you sure we won’t get into trouble if soldiers come our way?” ”No problem! I know the soldiers there, they won’t say anything, believe me!”
I look over to Fyodor and I can see that he, like me, has started to excitedly bob his head up and down, impatient to tread on Iraqi soil himself. But as Lezgin continues to ramble on how perfectly safe it is we understand that he is really just inviting us to come along in order to tell a story. Maybe, after all, that nice midnight walk through waist-deep snow all the while ducking from PKK stray bullets would turn out to be just out of my comfort zone, I decide for myself, a little disappointed nonetheless.
Soon after, we fall to sleep in the luxurious velvet beds they have made for us.
Breakfast on the veranda in the morning with the backdrop of snowy mountains feels like a cut out from an Alpine holiday prospectus. And as we walk out of the village we greet the man with the deep furrows down his cheeks and the pretty eye-lashes from last night.
We end up spending the whole morning walking. The few cars that pass us are either full to the brim or decide they don’t want to stop for us. Afoot, we wind up the road inching forward, the cleared away snow piling up several metres high at its sides impressing its cool glow on us.
The beauty of the vista when we reach the sign reading “altitude 4833 metres”, and pass around a bend that allows us to see into the valley swept open on the other side is not quite possible to capture with a camera. There is an element to this beauty that no picture can capture which is exactly what makes this view so impressive: SPACE. Standing up here with this incredible valley at our feet is the feeling of hovering over an abyss, a vast inverse snowstorm globe at the brim of which you stand. At the centre of our view creeps the long serrated spine of a long, petrified, snake-like bodied dragon that seems to have died with its head in the ground. I later hear that the locals call this kind of rock formation a “fish back” which surely is the most fitting description. This one is a particularly impressive exemplary of the typical anticlines that dip towards the Iraqi border here -in Southern Kurdistan the mountains are said to curve the other way.
The mountains that rim the view at the other end of the spectrum are overborne by the only thing that towers higher than them: snow white cumulus clouds. We have another long day of hitching in front of us. Here and there the military stop us and look through our bags. Some of the soldiers are flirty and cute, offer us biscuits and ask me for my e-mail adress. They really must be too young to have participated in the lootings and gang-rapes of villagers of the nineties, I tell myself and smile back.
At the end of the afternoon, as we curve the last mile up to Hakkari, landscape and cloudscape blend to an early night, and the skies celebrate the end of our day grey and glorious in an outburst of lashing rain. I fete the familiar snow capped mountains around here with some Ülker chocolate, even though I can only surmise them right now behind the impenetrable drapery of storm and night.
In our hotel the lights get dimmer when we take our showers, and brighter again when the tab is turned off. The TV throws blue flickering reflections on our faces.
Back to the Middle Eastern Tales
The whole story can be read here.
Hoewer, the splendid voyage to the Cap Verde, those rocks thrusting upwards amid turquoise waters, was soon be outshined by the voyage to the limits of esculence I would be taking the sailors on. After one of my meals back in Dakar, the owner of the boat who had chanced in to check out the results of the dry dock, tersely remarked that he would have certainly fired me after three days at most. Thankfully for me it had of course been the captain's right and (ir)responsibility to keep me in my job for the whole month.
In general mealtimes unfurled along the lines of the following ceremony: As soon as I put my cookery on the table -usually some tomato sauce into which I had mistakenly, by force of too enthusiastic a hand-movement, dumped the better half of either the pepper or the chilly pot, to go with a kilo of half-uncooked, overly salted rice that I hadn't managed to finish in time because the original portion of rice I intended to make had had too much fluid and had thickened into a white watery mass of gelatine consistency which I had had to throw away. As soon as these two main constituents of the meal (tomatoes and rice, remember ;) ) were on the table, approximately set with plates and cutlery for the requisite number of sailours, I would make a bolt for the backroom of the kitchen. There I'd be hiding out (sometimes behind the freezer) in order not to have to listen to the comedy that regularly unfolded in the dining room. Everyone went to great lengths of deriding my loving efforts to keep them nourished by mockingly, oh painfully mockingly, retrieving the entire gamut of aliment-appreciative vocabulary -"delicious", "scrumptious","hmmmm...".
Well, you know, I cannot cook and never will learn how to cook now matter how hard I try, but three cheers for a captain who gave me the chance of a lifetime to prove it with a vengeance.
Friday, May 18, 2007
And so, the next morning, we got a lift in a rich gentleman's black elegant 4-by-4, and were presently speeding down the only tarred road of Mali at 150 km/h, slowing down not to run over any donkey carts or women carrying water from time to time, but still transporting us in a mere six hours to our destination: the Segou festival.
We found a family's rooftop to sleep on and for our first evening managed to enter for free by foraging around a bit and finding a wall to climb over and slip a minimum amount of money to the guards behind. I can't say whether it was a good concert, cause I was actually drunk enough not to be able to tell the difference between even the middle and the end of any song, but the crowd was wild and I sang along till my voice left me, hugged the girls around me and got entangled in several lose turbans snogging the guys. For the encore guys in the first row jumped into the waist-deep water in front of the stage till the security fished them backout.
We got to bed at about 6 hoping to sleep into the day, but in the morning already, the radio was bleating in the courtyard. And while I still for a while tried to reach out for the silence beyond the noise and to dive into some more of that sweet unconsciousness, sleep proved elusive and reluctant and wakefulness seeped into my being like electrostatic charge. Then Kati opened the door and with the daylight let the commencing heat of the day, heavy and stifling, flood in and with it, sweep out the last dregs of my dream of rest. I knew my tiredness and my hangover would stick in my bones like thick clumps for the rest of the day, but I supposed I had no choice and had better get up and out already.
I wander the festival for a few short minutes only, follow the sound check on the main stage then I decide I have to collapse in the shade for a bit. When a boy comes and sits down next to me, I only moan to myself that yet another tourist guide has to bother me and only after he has been trying to talk to me for a few minutes I lift my head from between my arms crossed over my ears and listen to what he is saying; "Do you want a drink? Hey can I get you anything?" "No, don't worry, just leave me alone" "just out of bed and already another unasked for suitor I think to myself. Then, as he keeps insisting I think why not take advantage of him a little bit, he could fetch me a bag of water after all, next time he repeats his question I'll send him off. Yet, unexpectedly; the next phrasehe utters is "Don't you recognize me?" and I diplomatically decide not to answer truthfully but instead with fake indignation mutter "of course I do" - hoping he doesn't see me checking him out more intently for once, out of the corner of my eye. I still don't recognize him, but employing my sense of logic I have to deduct that there is really no other possibility than that the old saying of alcohol making members of the other seks more appealing than they would be soberly seems to bear a great deal of truth here, and that he must be one of the boys I was making out with last night. When he comes back with a bottle of beer instead of the coveted drink of water this assumption is corroborated. After all wasn't I extra-avid last night of scoring free alcohol on all sides? It'll make me feel better about my hangover I reckon so I overcome my initial reluctance and take a big gulp. Not much later on I meet Kat at a tea stand. "I talked to the guy you were dancing with last night" "oh, I just met one of them, which one did you catch?" "the one with the turban" "there were about 5 of them!" "well, the one you were shoving your tongue down" "umm -which one? There were 3 or 4 of them if I remember right" "Well the one you were shoving your tongue down while you were slow dancing with the little boy with the baggy pants" "Oh that one, Boubacar" I pretend to remember his name."
This morning the oldest son of the family tried to elope with me. He was cute enough you know and if I spoke a little more Turkish it would have been fun, but that way I did have to tell the darling to kindly leave me to my own devices after he hitched the first 60 kilometres with me.
That sure would have been one hell of a roadtrip.