Istanbul, City of Contrasts

I’m going to just ignore everything I wrote in the previous post like it never happened, since it didn’t. I’ll have to start two sub-blogs…One for travel-writing, the exciting-stuff..And another for stream of consciousness stuff, which can sometimes be stuffy and depressive.

So here’s to a travel-writing piece.

Istanbul! A city within a country that’s been on my radar for quite some time now. I can’t specify quite what it is about Turkey that attracts my attention so much…Well okay, yes I can. Turkey is situated at a very strategic point in Eurasia; it is a country with a city (Istanbul) that straddles two continents. We’ll ignore the fact that Europe and Asia are, in fact, one continent geologically speaking – the convention is purely political/cultural. My Chinese students always laugh when I explain this, but the smiles fade when I tell them therefore Russia is the largest country in Eurasia. “NoOoOoO! Russia is Europe!” Fine.

Istanbul! Which translates to “City of burly men sipping from dainty teacups, two sugars please, while I raise my hairy pinky in salute.” I desperately wanted to take this photo but I’m still too shy to take pictures of random strangers, even in a touristic country. I absolutely love candid photos but I fear getting caught in an awkward “yes, not only am I staring at you, I’m immortalizing you in digital memory to look at when you’re never around But your ear will twitch and then you’ll know I’m doing unspeakable things to your captured soul.” Like karma-whoring you on Reddit, or something…Time for that zoom lens.

Istanbul! What history…A constant tug-of-war between Greeks, Turks and Arabs that still exists today. If I had to describe it, I’d call it the Melting Pot of Europe and the Middle East. In two days, I had fascinating conversations with people from Russia, Iran, Turkey, Dubai, Lebanon and Syria and they were all united in their criticism of US politics. I take that back — my Iranian companions had the least criticism and even praise while a Turkish tour guide who had nothing better to do (since I kept refusing his attempts to guide me) told a vivid story over bitter turnip juice about his rant at the US embassy in Istanbul that got him expelled by the police. An entirely nice guy, even if he refused my suggestion to see the country he criticizes so strongly. He said they’d get him on the plane only to ship him to Guantanamo after his little outburst – I’m always amazed by tour guides. They’re the bards of the real world — multilingual, charismatic and generally hilarious whether you pay for their services or not.

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Also: Israel. No one seems to like the Arabs but people genuinely fear Zionism and call the US a puppet being controlled by Israel for various nefarious goals. I always consent to listen and draw people out in these sort of discussions to see how they think — sometimes, something inside burns and insists I defend as if I’m being personally attacked though. I think there’s a general sense of “Americans are all right but we really don’t get why you let your government get away so much if you have so much peace and freedom.” And I wasn’t really sure how to answer that beyond “most of your problems are only on our TV screen and the worst our neighbors do are steal jobs no one wants and thrash us in hockey. It’d be different if there were rockets on our borders.” Harsh but honest, I think.

Istanbul! What beautiful people! I’m not sure if this is the famed “olive skin” one reads in books, but so many of the people have a rich, golden hue reminiscent of some Italians and Spaniards I’ve met that it must surely be so. It may be that I’m not used to being surrounded by so many light eyes, but I find their gaze very frank but distant, if that makes sense. Even the children. Not intimidatingly so, just confidently unimpressed by you, even when they say they’re impressed by you (-r height). Men and women, when they talk to you, don’t really light up in expressions the way the Chinese I’ve lived with seem to. At the airport, which will be a blog unto itself, watching the ticket agents deal with infuriating passengers, their expressions never seemed to match their words in my mind. Turks seem to speak with their eyes more than their features but take that with a huge grain of salt — two days is hardly any real time getting to know a people. More likely, their expressions are just different from the ones I was looking for. Such is the mind.

Istanbul! Land of…So-so food? I have to say I was mildly disappointed but again, I’m not being fair. Only two days…The Turkish desserts..Baklava…Turkish delights in infinite variety (pomegranate-pistachio was amazing)…Toe-curling strong tea with sugar cubes…I managed to somehow NOT get any shish-kebab but did eat quite a bit of doner-kebab since it was literally everywhere. Doner-kebab is the shwarma we all know and love back in the USA, only a real meat version instead of the weird pressed lamb loaf one sees at the local mall. Interestingly, doner-kebab is usually served in a thin wrap with tomatoes and french fries soaked in meat-juice. And its really good. Also Turkey loves weird juice. Pure cherry juice, which is usually found in the aisle of overpriced health items in the USA, is the standard juice of choice here, for only ~3TL (~ 1.5 USD) a can or even a liter bottle in stores.  The beer is beer; wasn’t overly impressed but only had a couple local brews. Turnip juice with pickles and cabbage is a healthy street drink – if only because the salesperson will emphatically gesture to your heart and body with such enthusiasm one assumes he’s working in some cardio with his sales pitch. I’d recommend it only to say you’ve tried it and/or its supposed medicinal value as it’s generally room temperature and rather bitter. Even so, I take back my vote. I had a few things that were “meh,” but actually I had a lot that was pleasing too for such a short trip. The expensive restaurant food was surprisingly bland for my palate — hummus, pasta, stuffed grapes and other typically Mediterranean fare I always ended up salting, but that could just be me being an American. The street food and a la carte options were much tastier. There are great eats to be found here, and a lot more things noted for a future trip.

Let’s save the architecture and music for Part II, shall we? Elveda!

Returning to Buffalo in July

So it’s coming to a head here. I’m working out the last of my restlessness here and it’s hard in a lot of ways to slow the wanderlust that’s dominated my movements for nearly 9 years now. Looking back, situations grew more and more intolerable for reasons I can’t explain because they’re stupid reasons. I was able to keep a job for a year…Then 8 months…Then 6…Then I was in and out continually, both in places and work scenes. Trying to sculpt new identities for myself. I failed because I couldn’t find myself in any of them.

Ideas and plans continually arise and pop like soap bubbles and I have to really clench my teeth and try hard not to get swept up by the “next, greatest thing.” Really clench. While travelling is all and good, it’s become more and more apparent that my journeys have been fueled half by exploration and half by dissatisfaction with my surroundings, myself and whatever else I care to complain about. Some friends and family seemed to think I was “despondent,” “pleasure-seeking at the cost of stability,””a free spirit,” or whatever else.

Nope.

Though chaotic, this has been a very mindful experiment actually, begun 8 years ago at K&A Ponds and Fish in Clarence, NY, to test what chasing dreams means. I was the store manager then, which meant fairly little since we had two employees and I was the only full-timer. Store manager! My highest achievement at age 23! I was continually daydreaming about what I wasn’t doing. For some reason I had a near-paralytic-fear of a mid-life crisis…I wanted to climb mountains, learn languages, martial arts, meditate, eat weird foods, backpack and be an amazing adventurer. If I could visualize these things, well surely I could accomplish them! The last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a boring city with a boring job full of boring regrets! And there was this degree I had that I wasn’t using…Well I’m done with this city. Time to make this far more charismatic image of myself a reality! And so I left for Texas and you all know the rest of the story. And then New Zealand. And then Texas again. And then China. Back to New Zealand. Back to China. Back to Delaware. Brief stint in Alaska. Back to Delaware. Down to Texas. Off to Vietnam. Back to China again. And now I’m here.

And I’m too tired to run from myself anymore.

The more I moved the more obvious I was running away. From social situations, from job dissatisfaction, from feelings of regret and stagnancy and general self-hate..From judgmental thoughts, from the criticism of others…To wealth, to love, to new horizons, to a better Me, to new beginnings…Whenever I had a complaint about how Reality was unfolding, well, luckily I’d structured my life around the pillars of “freedom, minimalism and mobility!” I can be on a plane tomorrow!

I was (and still am a bit) proud of that. I’m a veteran traveller now. I’ve checked off nearly every box on that laundry list I made back in 2006 as Retail Store Manager. I’m deservedly proud of that.

But.

My initial ventures of curiosity and growth became a fear of anchors that would keep me in a place. At first I quit car ownership and owning a lot of things because I was poor. Americorps money sucks, damn you Texas. Later it became a fear of bondage. I’ve read and written plenty of articles where simplicity is espoused for its virtue and there is truth there, for sure. In my case though, for some reason I’ve never really held the belief that things in of themselves would make me Happy so I was preaching to the choir. But it took a long time to notice that this mutated into a rather (un)subtle form of avoidance to “stay free,” lest something tie me down and that’s a huge problem. Things can tie you down but only if you let them. But if things have always been empty to me why was I still afraid of them?

Ironically, now I feel the urge to be more domestic. The invitation seems pretty clear right now. When I moved back to Austin after Mom died, I had all sorts of plans for gardens and vehicles and pets and house parties and other things…That evolution was starting, but something wasn’t quite dead in me. I still thought being a vagabonder (i.e. running away to some better idea) would cure all of my discomforts and fears and so I didn’t give my 100% all. I only bought a few things, barely interacted with people and then gave up a rather awesome situation with a company I have great respect for because I hadn’t slayed the hydra of social anxiety/thinking I had to be happy 100% with every aspect of my job/self-criticism. I was still ready to uproot and go if things went South, and well, how can one appreciate anything if one continually has one foot out of the door at all times?

I was just touching upon Advaita Vedantist teachings and Adyashanti said something that I knew was for me but I didn’t want to hear it. To paraphrase: “sometimes Life is really about the bills, marriage and kids. You don’t have to be continually changing your surroundings trying to fit Life into your ideas. It won’t work; you handed the keys over to Life when you started this inquiry and this is what Life wants to play out in your life. Go with it.” By this point I’d given my two weeks notice and had grand dreams of East Asia (for the third time). I really didn’t want to hear this. Still, it played on a loop track in the back of my mind because despite all of my efforts to explain how he was talking to that other person, I knew I was kidding myself and it was time to stop. To really Stop, because it was obvious controlling my external circumstances was no longer working, what little I could control. Amazingly, a few weeks into backpacking beautiful Vietnam, I decided I was bored. Time to go to China and start work and be content. A week left before I go? Nah I’ll just eat the 50% cancellation fee on my original ticket and buy a rather expensive last minute ticket to Guangzhou, China, rather than wait an extra week in the entirely lovely Saigon. I’ll find my spark back in China. Two weeks later I’m back in Jinan and planning to work in another city by the summer.

What the hell am I doing to myself? To my life? This isn’t sustainable anymore.

I’m reading “The Map of Enough: One Woman’s search for Place” by Molly Caro and nodding with each page. “Hearing about the whereabouts of other people always made me desperate for a new set of circumstances. It was the human condition to want more, to seek literal greener pastures, a desire encoded in our DNA to keep us alive, right? But being powered by my need to experience more and more and more seemed now like a vow to remain thirsty. I did not want to be that woman who felt inadequate her whole life.” How can it be that someone who’s experienced as much as I have and has been ever so fortunate in life is continually thirsty? What is it that parches my throat? What do I even know of thirsty, being a First Worlder, quite wealthy and healthy?..This last bit was a particularly harsh bit of judgment someone very smart and handsome helped me to discard (to paraphrase: your problems are still your problems and avoiding them by feeling guilty isn’t healthy or in the interests of self-love. Accept them and yourself as you are and see them through. (thank you so much little j, even if we don’t talk much anymore..!)

The invitation is to Just Stop and see what’s there when I’m not moving. I could (and should) do that here in China but I really am played out on this city. I have my regular list of complaints about Asia but its absurd to speak them when I keep coming back under my own dissatisfaction. I even came back to the same city where I had a mental breakdown after my first year. Seriously. On the other hand, situations that had me in tears two years ago make me laugh now so perhaps challenging the past in this way was necessary. Just Stop. I’m making one last trip, back to New York State. No wait…Definitely not my last. I still have passport stamps to collect — but if I travel it won’t be to seek a better version of myself or fill a percieved lack. I have everything I need right here and always have.

Just one thing. A dog. I want a co-dependent, to get me out of my head and stop thinking about myself so much. I’m really rather boring and repetitive in what I think about and there isn’t that much to learn from thoughts anymore. Being self-absorbed is tiresome and I want to close out that part of my life. Dogs though…Dogs rock. And I can’t move as much if I have a baby to care for. I believe I shall call him/her Bodhi.

Woof.

Uighur Encounters in Jinan

Debating with a friend over the recent attacks in Kunming and it inspired a memory, unrelated to this recent tragedy. A glimpse into the deep cultural divides that inspired it.

June 2011. Hot early summer day in Jinan, Shandong, China. I’m walking past McDonalds on my way to the grocery store and there they are again. A makeshift canvas and wooden pole stall. A selection of bright yellow, ripe hami melons. And two definitely incongruous faces in a sea of Han Chinese, though not as incongruous as my own. A bit darker of shade, wavy brown hair. Medium beards, body hair and green eyes for one, blue for the other. Xinjiangese merchants from the far West selling fruit out East. They wave as always and I do the same, as always. The younger looks my age and the older maybe 35. I think they’re brothers. This time though, I decide to stop and see what happens.

The younger one, always smiling, pulls up a stool and the older one takes a melon without hesitation and splits it on the table. This was clearly not about a purchase — they were welcoming me for discussion. It was tricky; my Mandarin was just a fragile thing then but luckily I had my phrase book to point when I couldn’t get anything across. Their accent was really hard to understand but I got the gist of it. I don’t remember both their names, but I believe the older said his name was Brekmanth.  I don’t know why that stuck with me but it did. I started to ask about Xinjiang and they started having more trouble understanding me. I assumed my accent must be atrocious but it had us both laughing with our mutual confusion. By now, we’d attracted a rather sizable crowd of Han Chinese and I didn’t really appreciate the attention. Interestingly, neither did they.

A local popped his head in and said in English “excuse me, would you like help?” I responded “yeah, I’m trying to ask them where in Xinjiang they’re from.” He nodded, turned and started speaking to them. And they stared blankly. The local turned back to me: “sorry, but they don’t understand Chinese well.” That was a shock. My memory gets blurred at this point, but I distinctly remember Brekmanth was not pleased by the intrusion. He gave the guy a heavy browed scowl that I caught and I looked surprised they didn’t know Mandarin, which they caught. And we found ourselves regarding each other in a moment where the innocence of it all seemed gone.

Before…It was three people figuring each other out over sweet fruit on a hot day. A rare moment of naked curiosity between two radically distinct cultures. Then something changed and it just felt awkward. Like we all felt okay previously, just three children bumbling with an unfamiliar tongue without judgment. Suddenly adults burst onto the scene, or at least remind us they’re there, and no one wants to speak influently in front of the audience. Burst is a strong word to use when the Han man was clearly trying to be helpful, but burst is what happened.

So there we were with nothing to say. I retreated to polite formality and offered to pay for the melon. Naturally, they refused and that was that. It felt sadly rushed and stiff under the weight of all those Han stares. Our worlds resumed their courses in opposite directions. It was an odd ending to a good overall experience that stuck with me even years later. But that very day, I decided I wanted to see if we could be friends. In this digital age, it’s rather easy to write down a few strings of Uighur words to try out and a few days later I found myself walking past McDonalds again. Scrap of paper in hand. Past an empty sidewalk with no melons or Uighurs, just locals hawking lottery tickets.

And a sign: No Soliciting.

Guangdong Provincial Museum well worth the trip!

Aren’t these metal ship-ring-things impressive? What if I told you they were forged during the Han Dynasty, nearly 2000 years ago? Those would not look out of place on a ship today! China is pretty amazing…And Guangzhou is a fine city, as cities go. Mild weather, great public transportation, great amount of diversions combined with a fine cultural scene. I like it quite a bit here; not least of all because street barbecue is a year-round event, compared to the North where it disappears along with the leaves of Fall.

I went to the Guangdong museum yesterday and was really pleased with it. I wasn’t sure how much to expect out of a free provincial museum — generally daily free museums in the US mean “hey kids, press your face against these sliding metal bars and look at your face on the other side! Science!” (okay, I enjoy those too, but I’m not going to make a day out of it…..) But this particular museum limits the amount of people entering to 5000 a day, so there must be something to it. And there definitely was. Although the first sections of pottery and a visiting African art exhibit had no English tags (and the English audio tour was disabled for maintenance) the exhibits were quality and had plenty of visuals for you to piece together what was being explained and going on. And moving up to the third and fourth floors, suddenly all of the exhibits are in English and Chinese. I suspect the lowest floor is reserved for visiting exhibitions for convenience.

Something I’ve noticed, having been to a few Chinese museums, is that the exhibits and history are sometimes significantly skewed towards certain political views. I’ve yet to see an exhibit that showed Tibet or Xinjiang as being anything other than part of China, despite them both floating in and out of Chinese control throughout the ages. But the Guangdong museum was fairly neutral, judging from the English script, anyways. To be fair, Canton in particular has been a regional center with foreign influence for millennia, and about as far out of Beijing’s orbit as you can get and still be influential.

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The exhibits of the early 1900’s Canton were my favorite. It’s just such a romantic time period in my mind; British ships plying the waters between Canton and Hong Kong…American and Ottoman businessman in overcoats negotiating with Chinese merchants on how to deal with Japanese pirates over tea…(I don’t actually know if there’s Japanese pirates; I just like the idea) The Chinese merchant opens a tin splashed with garish colors in Chinese and English and celebrates the arrangement by offering his partners their choice from a selection of cigars (or was it opium?). And the decor! So much intricate mahogany…That’s how I want my house to look. Mahogany chairs, tea tables and cabinets in the Chinese style. Such class.

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My one gripe is how much coverage was given to the struggle between the CPC and KMT following WWII. Zero. Sun Yat Sen, being a local hero born in Guangdong, got plenty of notice for his efforts in WWII…Aaaaaaaaaand then he drops off the face of our coverage, we see a photo of a bridge the KMT apparently destroyed and the CPC IS VICTORIOUS! It was to be expected; like other countries we alter our history to suit our needs as well, though it’s generally done on a state basis and on more niggling details, not, say, whitewashing the entire American Civil War into three slides. Still. Guangzhou’s Guangdong Museum is a fantastic way to spend an afternoon and it’s even free! Just get there early if you can!

When Good is Bad

I’m going to take a moment and rankle a bit over something I have zero control over so, feel free to click this link if you don’t really have an interest in reading further. This woman in Russia makes the most amazingly lifelike dolls and they’re pretty cheap. I’d buy one for a gift.

But I hope you’ll keep reading and maybe give me a little perspective.

Here in China I’ve learned to adjust to most of the things that bug me, as you do in any culture.  But one of the largest things that really cuts me to the core might be something you’d not expect to see until it happens to you.

Like just about…Oh, everywhere on Earth, there are beggars. And like just about…Oh, everywhere on Earth, the beggars target foreign tourists. Sure ~ they’re here so they must have money. But something I’ve seen here that really makes me throw sensitivity out the window with a good sized-brick is when giving gets you harassed for more money. So many times, when I opt to give money, I get a scrunched face and the hand doesn’t go away. Sometimes followed by “You make so much money here. You can give more. The food you’re waiting for costs twice as much.” Once, I even had a Chinese woman start chewing me out at the bus station in defense of a pushy beggar and I lost it. “If you’re so caring, why don’t YOU give?” Naturally, she said she did. And then the bus came and I fled, shaking with rage.

I think it’s the presumption that gets me, followed by the lack of recognition that “I’m a bit better off than I was before, even if he didn’t hand me USD$50,” and finally a bit of hubris on my part. Presumption being “it’s okay to hit up the foreigner and ignore every citizen around you.” Still, Life hit me with the Bat of Clarity this same night. There was a man and a child with a severe illness on the sidewalk and I gave them the same amount of money. His child was in a wheelchair and he was ancient. Both the man and the child thanked me profusely, and the thought burned in the back of my mind “that’s fucking gratitude. His kid can’t walk and they didn’t feel the need to give me the scrunch-face and guilt me.” And then I couldn’t ignore the realization that I was buying feel-good-about-Me, not doing a Good deed. And if I’m truly inspired to do Good, then it should be irrelevant if I get a smile or a frown. It wasn’t entirely about warm fuzzies. I knew where things would go with that woman but I did it anyways because I didn’t want to judge. I sort of stared at her for about 10 seconds, debating on whether I should pretend I don’t understand her but opted to give enough for a street meal and then the hand stayed and…I need to stop being so sensitive over that woman’s survival mechanism.

I did Good. Doesn’t matter if it’s not up to someone else’s standards or if it was entirely pure of intent. I made someone else’s life in Earth a little easier and that’s where I need to stop this train of thought. There’s no Golden Celestial Book to compare my actions to…Er, unless you believe in that there is, in which case, no offense.

I don’t like this post because it cuts pretty deep so I’m clicking Publish and tossing it to the lions.

CryoBaby

Staring…Staring…The cryogenic embrace awaits…More like CRY-ogenic. That makes sense in my head, not on paper…Meaning I’m a big baby…Because I really don’t want to do this.

I had an epiphany, on motorbike during my last day in Saigon. I had this to look at the whole ride, and maybe I was inspired by Popular Monkey, but I think it’s pretty legit. A cold shower is symbolic. Sure, there are supposed health properties worth considering, but what I should be considering every time I do it, is that living a good Life should not be about acquiring and sustaining my personal comfort. Not least because it’s impractical, but because growing in ANY dimension requires discomfort on some level. Take learning to cook a dish. I think I’m a pretty good cook, and I’ve found the magic number for learning how to cook a dish is five. Meaning, by the fifth try, you’ll get something resembling what you set out to do. Sometimes I get lucky ~ strangely, I made a killer lasagna on my first try but it’s taken me 10 years to figure out how to not burn fried eggs. But in short: you’re going to waste time and have to eat bad food a few times before you get some approximation of what you set out to do.

Learning a language. You’re going to get words wrong. People won’t understand you and you’ll feel frustrated. It’s uncomfortable.

Any sport. You’ll get sore and be bad at it for awhile. The gym. Poor technique and sore muscles.

Fishing?..Worm guts and days where the fish ignore you until you learn where to go and how to cast past branches. The greater the potential gain, the greater the discomfort and effort it takes.

So I’m still staring at the cold water misting from the faucet-head. Okay let’s just get some awesome music going…Queue Ra on Spotify. Oh wow, in China, you can select your water temperature. It goes past 85…Queue subversive thoughts. It’s just a hot shower. It’s how I like to start my day. I skipped my shower yesterday because that hostel sucked and I was sore in that tiny bed and I have a stomachache right now and my tea is bitter and it’s smoggy today and I need a boost to accomplish stuff and this shower would be reallyreallyreallyreally nice right now…

And I realize that absolutely everything I aspire to do will be compromised and all of my awesome thoughts about my potential are absolute bullshit in the face of this. I’m not even saying this in some sort of macho-man psyching myself up-mode, either. It’s entirely true. A boost to accomplish stuff?! This cold shower…Is the discomfort it takes to learn a skill. In this case, learning to choose discomfort when comfort is a twist away and having the self-mastery to stick with it.

I step in and the howling begins. I wonder if the hotel will add a fee for sneaking a dog into my room. Nope…Cant…Can’t think through ALL THIS ICY DEATH

Time passes in a blur. I turn and squeak as my back, which has warmed now gets re-frozen. I feel my torso and legs beginning to thaw and I curse my mammalian metabolism. I turn to rinse my chest. Goosebumps in the shower? My brain can’t quite process that.

Glass of green tea. I can hardly type, I’m still shivering. Misspelling…Everything. My nipples are so hard it hurt to towel off. I’m not sure if that’s because of the cold or because of my body can’t handle this level of Badass. Probably both. I’ll leave you with that to ponder while I go find some food.

Popular Monkey wants me to have a nice day, and so I shall, even though it’s taken an hour to post what took ten minutes to write because China. I will still have a nice day and I hope you will too.

Welcome to my brain.

Icy Embrace of Cleanliness

My hotel room here in Saigon doesn’t have hot water. That’s what one gets for $12/night I guess. So I’ve been thinking a lot about this

It’s been on my mind a lot lately; mostly because it’s amazing how freaking HARD it is. It’s taking a slice of comfort that’s always been a part of my life as a well to-do American and willingly tossing it aside for some dubious metabolic benefits and mental weight-lifting. It’s like sitting in an electric chair with the off button in your hand and not pressing it…And it’s shameful how difficult it is, at least for me.

At least I know I’m not alone ~ I’ve found entire blogs dedicated to the Cold Shower CHALLENGE…There’s probably a reddit group as well. It’s kind of amazing and I want to start, seeing as well, it’s that or no shower at all right now so I might as well roll with the cards I have right now…Yes…I’ll just…Step in and…Do a little dance..Grit my teeth…Feel the icy needles dance up my spine…And now my toes are wet! YES! Now for my ankles, OH GOD I SPLASHED MY TORSO

I’ve fought shaolin monks and survived life-threatening illness, but this…This is what Death feels like. And I am afraid.

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