I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: September 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010


Sunday, September 26, 2010 9:47 pm

Today, having nowhere in particular to go, I sat down to rewatch A Map For Saturday, a documentary about a guy from New York City who quit his job to travel around the world for a year. The film's title refers to the eternal Saturday of life on the road- no responsibilities today, none tomorrow, and none, really, for the foreseeable future. It hasn't been exactly like that for me; I've had a job of some description for about five and a half of the seven months since I hopped a plane out of Texas. Still, I'm far from immune to the travelers' casual ignorance of day and date.

Today, apparently, was Sunday. I somehow didn't put this together until hours after church bells tolled across the city and the familiar call to prayer answered back, louder, nearer. My life is anchored by events, not calendars, these days.

Tomorrow, I go to the West Bank. I have another five or six days before I'm strictly required to be there, but one of my future coworkers, a Lebanese-British girl named Sara, is in town. I'm hoping to meet up with her to go as far as the border before we split up and head our separate ways- me to Nablus directly, her to Ramallah for a few days. I have no idea what to expect at the King Hussein Bridge, my entrance point to Palestine and one of the three crossings from Jordan (as a sidenote, I'm embarrassed how long it took me to put this simple equation together: all three are bridges, because the countries are divided by the Jordan River... thus, the West Bank [of said river]. Duhhh).

My rough plan goes like this: Shared taxi to the bridge. Delays while they search my bags. Delays while they ask me questions. Delays while they peer at me suspiciously and wonder out loud what possible long-term business an American could have in Nablus. Passport stamp. Bus or shared taxi to Jerusalem, or Ramallah if I can manage to find one. Onward to Nablus, a mere 39 miles from Jerusalem- I found this out today, and had to double-check; it looks much farther on a map. Then again, Jaber drove to Aqaba and back today in five hours- essentially the entire length of Jordan. Maps can be deceiving.

I don't have any idea, apart from "time-consuming", what the border crossing will be like. The most common online tip for expediting the process is to omit any mention of Palestine, but since I'll be entering the PA directly, without traveling through Israel first, I might look a bit sketchy and/or idiotic if I walk up to the guards and say "Shalom! West Bank? Oh no sir, I would never!" Should I be concocting some grand story, or will the truth do the trick? How careful should I be in hiding/disguising/tossing anything which speaks of an interest in Arab culture (I'm looking at you, Basic Standard Arabic book)? Realistically, I don't foresee any major issues. The same totally unthreatening young-female-and-solo aura which is the source of so many minor hassles in day-to-day life here should, I hope, get me into Palestine with a minimum of interrogation.


My blog title can finally live up to its name: I'm in Palestine.

I won't bore you with the more mundane details of the trip over (lift to the bus station by Jaber, service taxi to the bridge, various passport windows to stamp me out of Jordan, bus to the Israeli side punctuated by more passport checks, long lines where we all surrendered our bags, metal detectors, further passport checks, bus to Jericho, service taxi to Nablus). But in between the metal detectors and passport control booth number seven, something exciting happened: I was detained!

Security seemed thoroughly unimpressed that I had a packed a book on Arabic and another on Turkish. I was initially surprised that they cared at all about the Turkish one- it hadn't crossed my mind that that could be an issue- but it occurred to me later that in the wake of the Mavi Marmara incident, Turkish may well be number two on the Israeli list of suspicious languages.

Two stern border guards pulled me aside into a private room and questioned me for an hour or so; every time the first one seemed about done, the second one (who was scarier both because he was older and because he was a lot more difficult to understand... the !INTERROGATION ROOM! isn't an ideal place to be going "what? what? huh? sorry? what?") would start in with his own line of questioning. My initial plan had been to just tell pretty much the truth if I got any sort of in-depth interview, but the fact that a simple book on learning Arabic had landed me in the hotseat changed my mind, and my story, in a hurry. The best thing I could come up with on short notice was to say that I'm highly religious and wanted to see the Christian holy sites in Israel. This story, in retrospect, was desperate idiocy; I'm sure it made me look more suspicious, not less, when I couldn't come up with any specifics whatsoever.

"Bethlehem? What are you going to see in Bethlehem?"

"Uh... you know... like, Christian... stuff..."

meaningful glance between the grim-faced guards

The older and meaner guy told me at one point that I "seemed nervous." Dude, of course I'm nervous. At least they had the courtesy to leave their M-16s outside.


Eight am now, and I'm sitting on the balcony of the apartment I share with five other teachers, sipping a cup of strong, sweet Arabic coffee. Yeah, there's a balcony which looks over the whole city- there are also jets in the bathtub, and what oddly enough seems like the greatest luxury of all- toilet paper. Apparently all this swank isn't quite enough to protect us from what I hope will be an infrequent enemy through the next three months: power outages. I have haystack hair. I have it bad.

Palestine looks exactly like what I imagined, but didn't really believe I'd find. I've traveled what amounts to a third the length of the West Bank three times now- Jericho to Nablus coming in, then Nablus to Jerusalem return when Nick and I went to meet Ciaran. Reminders of the conflict are understated: a sign for Martyr Street, political graffiti, a man who slowly shakes his head when our shared taxi rolls up to an Israeli checkpoint. But there are no tanks in the streets, I have yet to hear gunfire, and the people filing off the buses clutching their green Palestinian Authority Access Only identity cards only seem a little tired, a little wary.

It's not hard to remember that I'm standing on some of the holiest ground in the world. The hills around Nablus- and all the way to Ramallah, the capital of the West Bank- are rolling, brown, and barren, but there's something indefineably anachronistic about them. I find it easy to imagine first-century goatherds wandering up the slopes with their animals, or even bushes bursting into flames. It's not just the countryside; the old city of Jerusalem, for instance, is small enough and sufficiently dense with "most sacred this" and "most sacred that" that five minutes of totally aimless wandering through the covered suqs inside the Damascus Gate brought Nick and me to the front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

You can hardly take a step in the confines of the old city without coming face to face with some ancient relic of an Abrahamic religion: King David's tomb, the Church of the Dormition, the Mount of Olives, a gigantic golden menorah accompanied by a sign stating a desire to see the Temple rebuilt "speedily and within our lifetimes" (it made no mention of the fact that the Temple's restoration would entail the replacement of the Dome of the Rock, the mosque built over the stone from which Muhammad is said to have ascended to Heaven and the third holiest Muslim site in the world). The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as I said, was our first introduction to historical Jerusalem. Although it is supposedly built over the spot where Jesus was crucified and contains his tomb, we noticed right away that they're not big on signage. This holds true throughout Jerusalem. Most of what we learned was gleaned through eavesdropping on the tours passing all around us, which ranged from the annoying (hordes of Russian tourists pushing each other for better views) to the frankly fascinating (a procession of Spanish pilgrims making their way along the Via Dolorosa, bearing a massive cross and singing hymns in layered harmony).

Jerusalem isn't only about sanctity and history, though. It's no Tel Aviv- which is consistently ranked in the top ten party cities worldwide- but let's just say we certainly did dance on top of a van to Hebrew hiphop. Also... please please please don't take this remotely politically, but if good looks are anything to go by, I can see where the Israelis get this "God's chosen people" business.

I'm exhausted (and for the record, it's no longer eight am, not even close). Bedtime for me, and a promise of more blogging tomorrow!

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Saturday, September 25, 2010


The more remote and untraveled a place I visit, the more I find myself defined- by others and increasingly by myself- by a sense of location. Jordan, in absolute terms, is neither, particularly since Petra's recent designation as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, but neither is it exactly Paris or a beach in Goa. Jordan seems to draw an older, more sedate crowd. You can spot the occasional twenty-something European hefting his backpack from a taxi, sure, but nobody has ever accused this country of being wild and crazy. Jordan is safe, in other words, from students drunkenly belting out their national anthems in the streets.

Where was I going with this? Oh yeah. My point was that, as a 22-year old American girl traveling alone, I'm about as far from Jordan's typical tourist demographic as it's possible to get and as a result, almost everybody I meet seems immensely curious about why I'm here and the circumstances that led up to it. I'm still trying to come up with an appropriately succinct answer. My working model, for now, is to say that I was teaching English in Korea, then ended up in Turkey, where I found a job in Palestine... and Jordan is just my current waypoint.

When I say this to Americans, they say "PALESTINE?!" Jamal had a different answer.

Gasp. "KOREA?!"

"Uh..." I said, somewhat taken aback. "You know, South Korea."

"Even worse! Were you not scared?"

"...no? We're talking about the same Korea, right? Seoul? Busan?"

Jamal was horrified. He explained that in Korea, they eat people, and told me a long story about Egyptian construction workers who had been disappearing one by one over a period of some months, until the truth came out that the Korean supervisors had been stealing them away for dinner and sealing up their bones in the cement walls. "Nobody cared, of course, because they were Arab. But Korea is danger. You know what they eat in Korea? From the sky, everything except airplane. From the sea, everything except ships. From the land, everything except car. You see, no exception for humans."

Is this made more or less amusing by the fact that someone, somewhere, is probably claiming the same thing about Middle Easterners? I can't decide. Ahhh, cross-cultural understanding. And so the world turns.

From there, the conversation devolved, somehow, into an equally politically incorrect discussion of racial slurs. "I know what white people call black people. I know that white people say 'camel' for Arabs [note: we do?], but what do black people call white people to be mean? I know there is a word, but I don't remember." Again, this from Jamal.

"Cracker, I guess?" I offered.

"Cracker, yes!" Jamal noted this down on a scrap of paper, for future reference. So, on a scale from one to ten, how bad of a start is this to my English-teaching career in the Middle East?


Enough of that. I went to the bazaar yesterday, which was conveniently located in the bus lot directly in front of my hotel. Apparently it runs all day each Friday, full of clothes and shoes and vegetables. I went at midday- good timing, as it turned out, because the crowds were all at the mosque for morning prayers and that meant less pushing and jostling for me as I searched for location-appropriate work clothes for Palestine.

As a native English speaker, I got the same joy from browsing through the shirt racks as a Chinese person must feel if they loiter outside a tattoo parlor and giggle silently to themselves while reading things like "fish yum curtain" off the arms of customers. I tried to picture a young Muslim girl, decorously scarved, wearing a sweater with a Jagermeister logo, or maybe a middle-aged housewife purchasing the "MySpace is for slags" shirt to wear under her dress. HA! Where do they get these things, anyway? (A genuine question; a few had Salvation Army or Value Village tags still on them... so, what, do they go to North America and buy in bulk? That can hardly be a sound business plan when they're selling everything for the equivalent of a dollar and a half).

It was good to spend the day outside, in any case. Every time I mention to Jabar that I'm going to get something to eat or whatever, he puts up his hands and says, "oh no no no! I will tell the boy to get! You stay here!"

"The boy" is a blanket term for any of his four sons- the two older ones, around 17 and 19, who help out at reception, or in the evenings after school,the 9 year old or the 11 year old, both unbelievably adorable and unless something goes very wrong, on their way to becoming devestating charmers in ten years or so. They've given me a new name: Car ("sayyara" in Arabic), and every time I see little Muhammad, he starts shouting "vrroooom!" abd kicking his legs in some frantic, bizarre approximation of working the pedals. God help us all when this boy is old enough to drive.


Friday, September 24, 2010

In Which Forbidden Topics Are Discussed

After subsisting for two days on my Turkey goodbye-presents (fantastic olives from Berna and a bag of not-altogether-delicious cookie approximations from Yagmur), I decided last night that it was time to go in search of food. Stepping out the front door of the hotel, I noticed three things all but immediately:

1. Everyone was wearing those medical masks you’d see in Asia around SARS time, because
2. the air was thick with yellow dust. I later asked the hotel manager about this and was told that “people are very angry. In twenty years, first time this happen.” http://www.jordantimes.com/?news=30299
3. Presumably unrelated: It was about 8:00 pm when I went outside, and all the shops were closed. A good 90% of them, anyway. Really, nobody ever needs anything after dark? How bizarre.

I did manage to find one shop which had yet to close its doors, and bought yogurt and bread. I thought one pita bread would probably cut it, so I held up a single finger and pointed to the stack the wizened bread man was shoveling into a plastic bag. He proceeded to put about thirty pitas into a bag, give his work a critical eye, then add another thirty. “Ok, one dinar.” Whoa. And here I was thinking that Jordan was expensive. I ended up getting five and paying around ten cents.

Moving on.

Jabar and I got to talking in the afternoon. “Why do you go to Israel?” he asked. “Stay in Jordan, I have many friend in the schools, in the government, you do private lesson, make so much money. Jordan is better.”

“Not Israel, exactly,” I felt compelled to clarify. “I have a job in Nablus.”

Jabar looked stunned for a moment and peered at me over his mustache (it is an epic mustache). “Why you hate Israel? I am a Jew! My family, Jews! I come here from Israel!”

Ohhhh man. Was I about to get thrown out of his hotel? My name scrawled by one of his government friends on some secret WEST BANK: NO list? “I don’t hate Israel! I don’t hate anybody! I told you I want to learn Arabic, right? I wouldn’t be able to do that in Israel...”

“No!” he boomed at me. “I see it in your eyes! You hate Israel and my people!”

There was an absolutely deafening silence, and then:

“AHAHAHAHA! HOHO! You think I am a Jew! You believe me! Hohoho!”

Ahh, Jabar, you joker. As it turns out, he’s a Palestinian refugee, now effectively exiled from his homeland and refused a visa by the Israeli border guards, in contact with his (as-yet) undisplaced friends only through luckier acquaintances who have the privilege of traveling from the West Bank to Amman and back on business. I should maybe have guessed: above the door hangs a massive picture of a keffiyah-wearing Palestinian, hauling a boat towards an empty shore. On the boat is crammed a city, unmistakeably Jerusalem. “We want peace,” Jabar said, pranks forgotten now. “Only peace, but it will never happen. We will have war forever.”

Jamal, one of said luckier acquaintances, ex-limo driver in the Bronx (“I never wanted to drive a limo... now I drive a bulldozer and I am much happier”), was similarly pessimistic about the situation. Although he lives in Nablus and reassured me that things there have been very stable and safe since the last intifada, he made it clear that- obviously- there’s no love lost between his people and the Israeli army. When I asked about the impeding end of the settlement freeze in the West Bank, he only laughed. “Netanyahu say there will be agreement before the freeze ends. We fight more than twenty-five years and he say we agree in three days? Impossible! There is plan already, thousands of new building!” Buildings he presumably daydreams about razing with his bulldozer.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was not the only topic of discussion we covered on Lonely Planet’s no-go list. Not being particularly religious myself, it’s not a subject I generally find it particularly difficult to avoid, but Jabar seemed desperately keen to instruct me in the differences between Christianity and Islam, especially after he asked my own faith (“Uhhhh,” I replied, ever so convincingly, “ummmm, Protestant?” I don’t like to lie, but people in the Middle East and Africa often meet a claim of atheism or agnosticism with disbelief at best and disrespect at worst). An impromptu yet elaborate puppet show was laid out on the table- Jabar’s lighter was the Old Testament, his L&M cigarettes the New Testament, and Jamal’s Winstons the Qur’an; an ashtray became Jesus (no symbolism intended, I assume, since Muslims respect Jesus as a prophet too- just not THE prophet), while a teacup played Muhammad and a length of rubber tubing he kept whacking me on the knee with for emphasis got the lead role of God. He didn’t try to convert me- really- but did imply rather strongly that it was probably for the best unless I like fire a whole lot.

He said that only a few of his eight daughters are good Muslims- wearing the hijab, abstaining from alcohol, fasting at Ramadan- but he doesn’t try to enforce anything with the rest. “I do not want to make them do this,” he said. “After they truly believe Islam, they will want to for their selves.”


Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sierra's Celebrated and Long-Awaited Arrival in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

Allaaaahu akbarrr. Allaaaaahu akbarrr. Allaaaahu akbarrr.

There are a number of totally normal places to hear those words. In a mosque, for instance (or really anywhere within announcing distance of one if you happen to be in an Islamic country), or on one of those grainy videos made by people whose job description starts with T (a word I’m going to keep out of this blog as much as possible). Over the loudspeaker on a plane? Uh...

Air Arabia does this. “As we prepare to take off, let us begin our journey with a travel prayer.” Then two minutes of Arabic chanting. I looked around surreptitiously to see if I should be, like, clasping my hands or bowing my head or something, but nobody- even the women in burqas or the men in red-checked keffiyahs- was paying any more attention to it than the average airline passenger does to the safety announcements. Still. How bizarre. I guess it was as good an introduction as any to the Middle East.

This seems like a good time to point out that I did need that introduction, because as it turns out, Jordan is not nearly as similar to Turkey as I’d imagined. Turkey, over the course of three months, had become my comfort zone. I could do things. I know enough of the language to confidently order things in shops and restaurants, ask directions, read signs and figure out where to go, ask prices, all that basic stuff. I was no die-hard tea-drinking, backgammon-playing Istanbulite with a tattoo of Ataturk, but I could be reasonably sure that I wasn’t going to get lost or scammed.

In Jordan... well, not so much. I barely speak a word of Arabic, and even the ones I can spell, I often can’t pronounce (I just spent half an hour shut up in my room trying to pronounce ayn, sounding for all the world like I was about to throw up rather than speak). It’s dirtier, and hotter, and more frantic, and I don’t know how much anything is meant to cost- a problem compounded by the unusual fact that the Jordanian dinar is worth more than the USD by about 50%. Jordan doesn’t feel like home at all. But I like that. It’s interesting.

I was tired when I got here. It was 12:30 am, and I’d been flying for eight hours- five more than strictly necessary, but a direct flight would have cost me almost double what I paid to go via Sharjah. I was all prepared to take a taxi into downtown Amman (“It costs 19? So that’s probably what, like 11 dollars? Ohhhh wait, right, dinars... ugh, 30 dollars...” Not so economical after all!) but as luck would have it, the bus which Wikitravel claimed started running at 6 am was right outside boarding as I exited the airport. I got off downtown and took a taxi to find a hotel; the middle-aged driver turned up the hiphop on his radio and offered me a Styrofoam cup of coffee.

On arriving at the hotel and handing him a 10-JD note to pay the fare, though, I was less impressed with his friendliness. Our communication was not tip-top, but he handed me back my tenner and pointed at the meter (which read 316, no decimals anywhere) and much frustrated gesticulating from both parties ensued. I was confused; 3.16 JD would be a little high, but maybe make sense considering it was 2 am by that time, but why wouldn’t he just give me change? 316 JD would be absolutely right out of the question, as nobody would be insane enough to demand 500 dollars for a 10-minute ride. I could only guess he had started the meter artificially high and wanted 32 dinars. I had noticed that it had read 3-something when he first turned it on, but had assumed at the time that it was a minimum fare, like taxis do pretty much everywhere. But as they say, when I assume it makes an ass of... well, pretty much just me. Anyway, too bad, Scammy McJerkface, that’s highway robbery and I wasn’t about to pay it. After it became clear that I wasn’t going to just pass him as much cash as his heart desired, we managed to agree to go inside the hotel and find someone who spoke better English to translate for us. The guy at reception seemed to take my side; there was a lot more Arabic back-and-forth between the cabbie and the receptionist than there was English, but in the end the cab-driver got all red-faced and grumped off downstairs with my 3JD and we all lived happily ever after, so far.

I’m at a different hotel now- the first one was really cool, with a huge balcony overlooking a Roman amphitheater, but it cost 20 dinars per night, which is outside my meager budget. My new hotel has no view and a broken everything-in-the-bathroom, but I’m only paying 7 dinars per night for a private room, which I sort of accidentally bargained down from 20 (he quoted me 20 when I walked in, and I kept insisting on something cheaper, since I looked this place up online this morning and I know they have dorms. The dude seemed very very intent on not allowing me to stay in a dorm, first saying that they were full, which I’m inclined to disbelieve since there’s pretty much nobody here, and then quoting me lower and lower prices for the private room- 15, 10, and finally 7- with a look of absolute anguish on his face over the thought of me staying in a room where Boys Oh My God might or might not also sleep).

He- Jaber, according to his business card- keeps pulling me aside for long-winded warnings about scams and harrassment and unscrupulous shopkeepers. I appreciate his concern (I guess he’s used to providing it; he has 12 children), but I wish he’d think of a more concise way to express it, particularly considering that I really know all that already. The problem lies more in avoiding/dealing with the above, not so much in being aware that they exist in Jordan.

I bought a book on learning Arabic earlier today (1.5 JD! Cheap!) and I’m going to make it my mission to take in as much as I possibly can. Suddenly being in a country where I’m totally unable to speak any of the language at all is bewildering and kind of uncomfortable. So on that note, study time!


Friday, September 17, 2010


Blah blah Ataturk, blah blah Bulgaria, but what about what you’re actually doing now? Fear not, I’m about to explain.

Today is my day off. Friday isn’t usually my free day, but things have been getting shuffled around a lot recently, what with people getting fired and rehired and Ilker, the manager, planning to close the hostel in a month and take off to Buenos Aires semi-indefinitely, so that’s what happens. I’m sitting in front of my laptop at Hush Hostel’s reception desk, looking up now and then to greet a guest and solicit their help for a project that Berna- my coworker- and I just decided to undertake: writing down the single favorite song of every person in the hostel and making a gigantic playlist for tonight.

I like working here, at least in part because it rarely involves any major degree of actual work. Morning shifts can be unpleasant, requiring you to get up at the crack of dawn (well, 9 am) and do all sorts of boring and borderline-gross things like emptying wastebaskets- which is more unpleasant than you might think, considering that putting toilet paper in any of the toilets in this country will clog up the works- changing sheets, and picking up all the trash people tossed on the floors the previous night. One bright spot about morning shifts is that, generally speaking, there’s a direct correlation between how much cleaning there is to do and how much time you have to do it before people get up wanting breakfast. All that is a bit tangential, though, since I rarely work mornings. I think Ilker took pity on me.

Working at a hostel also means that life is a bit like a speed-dating service, or an Olympic parade. Every day I meet between five and thirty new people from all over the place- mainly Europe (and mainly mainly Germany) but also the occasional American or Lebanese or Libyan- who I will almost inevitably chat with in the evenings, laugh with, get to know a little bit, and then wave goodbye to in a few days, never to see them again. Despite the wide range of characters who walk through the doors here, everyone’s conversations are, and I think this is more or less a permanent feature of life on the road, surprisingly formulaic at first.

“Where are you from?” is question number one. We, and I include myself because I do this too, follow up with “so how long are you staying in Turkey?” and then a list of follow-ups ranging from “oh cool, so what are you doing here?” to “where have you been?” and “what’s your job?” Curiously, or maybe not, nobody cares much about anybody else’s name, maybe because nationality serves as an equally good and more memorable identifier most of the time or maybe because we all realize that even if we somehow remember all thirty names we learned today, we’re not going to ever see these people again after next week.

I think one of the most interesting conversations I’ve had here was about national identity. “How does it feel to be from a country people don’t necessarily know much about?” I asked my companions a few weeks ago (a Lebanese guy, a Slovakian girl, two Turkish girls, and a Hungarian guy, if memory serves). Everyone seemed bemused by this question. What do you mean, “how does it feel”? It just is. But I disagree. I’ve recently been thinking a lot about national identity and linguistic identity- I’m from the States, after all, and speak English, both of which the international community at large has some relatively major claim on. I introduce myself as an American and people immediately bring their preconceived notions to the table. I think the anonymity, for lack of a better word, of being from a country like Lithuania or Suriname, would be a welcome feeling. We didn’t reach any consensus that night, but hey, I’m living right in the middle of an ever-changing group of international travelers. I’m going to keep asking, and I’ll get back to you with the results.

My single favorite guest so far was Ben, an American guy here to study at an Istanbul university for the Critical Languages Scholarship (envy). After finding out that he’s a Linguistics major, I wasted no time in trying him on some of my theories about language, only to find out that I’m not the first one to think of them. I guess some consolation lies in the fact that the people who came up with them first were actual scholars and professors and stuff, not 22-year olds who can’t decide if they’d rather go to grad school or spend life swinging from trees with monkeys and riding giraffes across the savannah (both?).

Anyway, check it out:
-Funny people are better at learning languages. Apparently true. I initially wondered about this when I realized that a very, very large percentage of my Turkish conversation is based on laughter- laughing at myself when I say something stupid and wrong, laughing when we can’t understand each other, laughing, basically, because without the crutch of verbal politeness, it’s the easiest way to communicate friendliness and positivity.
-Americans (and English speakers in general) are perceived as rude largely because our language lacks the degree of honorifics and buffer courtesy words which other languages use. Yet interesting fact: despite appearances, English is actually a highly polite language. In most other examples I can think of- all Romance languages, every east Asian language I’m aware of, most Slavic languages, and so on- there are two words for “you”, formal and informal. English, obviously, only has the one- but what people are generally unaware of is that “you” is the historical polite form, which fully replaced the less formal “thee” centuries ago, in a linguistic coup which parallels the equal and opposite modern change seen in, for example, Swedish, where the familiar “du” is increasingly being used in place of “Ni”. Interesting, no?

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Bulgaria? More like DULLgaria ahahahahoho

Although I consider myself pretty well-versed in geography, for an American anyway (I managed to stun a group of Finns during a drunken geography quiz the other night by knowing that China is the world’s leading exporter of peaches), I have to admit that there are large portions of the world which press on existing only vaguely in my mind, totally unplottable on my mental map. Eastern Europe is one of them. Don’t ask me which countries Macedonia borders; I cannot tell you.

This, by the way, is becoming a problem, what with working in a hostel and all. I find it very simple to think of myself who has a pretty good grasp of geography, but suddenly I’m surrounded by all kinds of Serbs and Slovenians who seem to derive great pleasure from shaming foreigners with the realization of their own ignorance. Now, I know my country doesn’t have what you’d call a sterling reputation for international awareness, and that’s why this whole thing is sort of a touchy subject. I’ve started engaging said Serbs and Slovenians (and Hungarians and Estonians and Poles and so on) in conversation to learn as much as I can about their respective nations, so that next time I come across one of their countrymen, I can casually remark, for instance, “ah yes, very interesting how Chicago has the world’s second-largest population of Serbs after Belgrade, don’t you think?” and thereby cleverly create the impression that I actually know quite a lot about Serbia. (True fact, by the way).

So, Bulgaria. For those of you whose Eastern European geography is as shaky as mine, Bulgaria is the big one bordering Turkey’s northwestern “arm”, which makes it a very convenient weekend destination for the hordes of foreigners who want to extend their 3-month Turkish tourist visa. That’s exactly why I went- having arrived in Turkey on June 13, my visa was set to expire on the eleventh of this month, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave. I got lucky, actually. Apparently sick of the hundreds or thousands of Western English teachers who decide every year that a quarterly jaunt to Bulgaria is less hassle than actually procuring a legal work visa (they’re pretty much objectively right about this), the Turkish government recently implemented new regulations which close the loophole. As of July 14, a 3-month Turkish tourist visa is only renewable every six months. Luckily, since I got mine beforehand, I was exempt from the rule... this time around.

Knowing nothing about Bulgaria, I decided to buy a ticket to the closest and thus most convenient city, Plovdiv, rather than the slightly farther and more expensive capital of Sofia. The few hours to the border were uneventful, aside from the difficulty of locating the correct bus- or more to the point, the correct bus terminal, as Istanbul has more than a half-dozen and they put no special effort into ensuring that the servis shuttles from the ticket office take you where you’re meant to go. I dozed off on the bus, probably gape-mouthed and looking thoroughly ridiculous to my fellow passengers the way that everyone inevitably does when they fall asleep on public transport, and was woken up by a Turkish man exclaiming into his cell phone that we’d been held up in a long line at the border for three hours. My (his?) timing was impeccable, though, and next thing I knew we were being shuffled off the bus and toward the Turkish exit police kiosk to get our passports checked. No problem; I was up and about for no more than five minutes before settling back into my seat to return to sleep, but soon after we were being ushered outside again for duty free. Everyone was exceedingly excited about this, and upon their return gleefully crammed bag after bag of alcohol and cigarette cartons under their seats.

The fun did not stop there. A further five minutes later, it was off the bus again, this time for border check #2- into Bulgaria. The guy held onto my passport and ushered me on, which worried me until I figured out that he had kept all the non-Bulgarian passports and sent out a peon to hand them arount soon afterward. One nice thing I can thank Bulgaria for: they’re very orderly with their entrance and exit stamps, putting them tidily on the first open page of my passport and not sticking them all stupid-like on page 24, as Australia insists on doing.

From there it was smooth sailing to Plovdiv, where I climbed off the bus at 5 am and spent a while wondering what to do next before going “eh, whatever” and setting off to find an ATM and a bathroom. In that order, as it turned out, since all the public bathrooms in town wanted 40 leva cents for entrance. I realized at the ATM that I had no idea what a leva was worth- should I take out 100 of them? 10? 1,000? Foreign currency is baffling. They may as well have been seashells. I settled on 100- far too much, as it turns out, and now whenever I’m digging around in my bag for cash, I always pull up handfuls of Bulgarian notes- and tackled my second mission.

I was only in Plovdiv for six hours or thereabouts, so I don’t have much in the way of observations to offer. Wikitravel tells me that there are lots of quaint churches, caves, and wide-eyed woodland animals, but Plovdiv has none of these. This is all I have for you:

1. Everyone around town looked like a cross between an... um... scarlet woman and an eighties high school student. I kept expecting them all to start snapping gum.

2. Plovdiv is big on casinos.

3. They make good hot dogs, with hollowed out French bread instead of hot dog rolls. Good call guys.

4. Look, just LOOK at this adorably nerdish man on Bulgarian money! HA! Have you seen Office Space? He looks like Milton. Aw.

I boarded the bus back to Istanbul at 11 am. It was thoroughly uneventful except for a few brief moments of stress at the Turkish border, where I realized that I hadn’t, as per regulations, actually been out of the country overnight, and then was initially refused a new visa since “I had a week left on my old one”. That sounded like nonsense to me, so I asked around and eventually found my way to the very secret location of the visa office, where an old man barely looked up from his newspaper long enough to slap a new sticker in my passport. Success!

And that’s the story of my visa run to Bulgaria. Now I have a brand new Turkish tourist visa and another entry on my “countries I’ve spent less than 24 hours in and really need to return to someday to give them a fair chance”, right below Norway, Denmark, and the Vatican.


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Go Time

(Before I get started, I should point out that the image at the top of the page ^ belongs to some guy on Flickr. PalFest, thanks).

I’ve been in Turkey for three months now.

Only five days left until I pack my things up again. My bags are getting lighter and lighter every time- it’s easier to trash things ruthlessly when you know you’re going to have to lug them around on buses and through airports and up and down strange streets for hours on end when you inevitably get lost. I’ve been looking at my possessions with an increasingly critical eye as Tuesday the 21st gets closer. This can go. Don’t need this. I’ve been carrying this shirt around since South Korea and haven’t worn it once- ditch. The only heavy items I’m going to allow myself are my computer, my journals, and my very worn copy of Teach Yourself Turkish.

So. Three months in Turkey. As always, I’m not entirely certain if I feel like I’ve lived here for years or if I still feel like I just stepped off the plane. Because that- within the first five minutes I was here- was when I completely fell in love with this country. Maybe it had something to do with going from a (generally good but) completely exhausting job to utter freedom, or maybe, more likely, it was helped along by the abrupt transition from hands-down my least favorite country I’ve ever lived in, never mind visited (sorry, South Korea) to a country where dark-eyed Mediterranean men shout and laugh to each other from doorways and women in headscarves pick their way down tiny alleys filled with çay shops and nargile smoke.

Turkey is difficult to explain. I think most guidebooks start out that way: you know, “Turkey is a land of contrasts, East meets West, secular constitution vs Islamist regime, European modernity next to centuries-old ruins, yada yada yada”. It’s all true, though. I find it incredibly hard to put Turkey into words. I mean, really, I haven’t seen much of the country- a month in Kabak on the southwestern coast followed by two months in İstanbul, with glimpses of Marmara and Aegean landscapes through bus windows. I guess the best I can do by way of explanation is a list of Killer Facts! about Turkey.

Killer Fact! The whole country is, well, pretty much obsessed with Atatürk. Most visitors are introduced to him from the first moment they step into the country at Atatürk airport, and slowly realize that he is everywhere in this country. A comparison is sometimes drawn with George Washington, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the scope of the national adoration. Every family home I’ve visited has a large portrait of him on prominent display. Not just homes, either- he’s in schools, every public office, even bars. And it won’t be long before someone brings up the fact that YouTube has been banned in Turkey since there was a video posted vaguely insulting him four years ago. So who is this guy? Let’s see, from memory (you can Wikipedia it yourself if you can be bothered- I can’t): Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, called Father Turk, was the country’s first prime minister, first president, and a whole bunch of other stuff besides. He spearheaded a huge reform campaign which, among other things, established Turkey as a secular state following the downfall of the Ottoman Empire and switched the writing system of Turkish from Arabic script to the Roman alphabet, purging thousands of Arabic loanwords in the process. So in conclusion uh, Atatürk was a pretty cool guy I guess.

Killer Fact! Racism in Turkey: pretty much nonexistent, except directed toward Kurds. The Kurdish people, as you may know, are a disenfranchised minority mainly living in the southeast, and it looks like things aren’t getting better for them in any particular hurry. A hugely controversial referendum just passed on September 12 (30 years to the day from the military coup which established Turkey’s current constitution) involving twenty-odd major amendments, none of which had anything at all to do with improving life for the Kurdish people. Following advice I read online, I never mentioned Kurds to anybody here, until someone brought it up to me first. A guy I’d been talking to abruptly changed topic out of the blue and said “so you know, I am Kurdish” with this strange mixture of defiance and defensiveness, like he expected me to jump out of my chair and leave or spit on him or something. Weirdo. Still, I expect he puts up with a lot of crap for it.

Killer Fact! Despite being one of the most socially liberal Islamic countries on earth, Turkey has a lot of odd little conservative quirks. When you book a long-distance bus ticket, for instance, the bus people are forbidden to seat you next to someone of the opposite gender unless you’re related (marriage counts). Judging from experience, they’re apparently also required to seat me next to the (choose one) fattest/loudest/sickest woman on the bus.

My Killer Facts! are turning out to be a lot more long-winded than I had planned, so I think three is all you get for now. I think I’m going to post this, and hopefully follow up sometime soon with posts about

-Bartending for a month in Kabak

-Two weeks on İstanbul’s European side, doing not much of anything

-Six weeks on the Asian side, living with friends and then working in a hostel

-V isa run to Bulgaria

-Future plans: Jordan, Palestine