Tuesday, March 16, 2010

En route from Latvia to Berlin

March 15, 2010

Yesterday we slept in a bit and went for a walk around Istanbul directly after breakfast. Our first stop was the Ayasofya, the gigantic 6th century church turned mosque in the 15th century. One of my favorite books when I was in middle school was Anna of Byzantium, about Anna Comnena. All of the Byzantine emperors, including her brother and father, were crowned in this huge building. The author had described and referenced the Ayasofya, but had never identified it, so when I walked through I felt like I had been there before in a very strange way. We walked up the ramp that could fit a chariot drawn by four horses into the upper levels, and looked at the newly uncovered mosaics, and got to see the gigantic marble urns taken from Bergama.

Directly afterwards, we walked across the street to the Blue Mosque, which was built shortly after Constantinople was taken over and converted overnight to Islam in the 1400s. We had to wait to enter because it was prayer time, and when we went inside we removed our shoes and the women covered our heads. From the outside, it looked like a newer version of the Ayasofya, but inside it seemed less grand, probably because it is still used as a place of worship.

Mosques have made me very uncomfortable – I hate covering my hair, and I hate how there are areas cordoned off by screens for women in the back and in hidden alcoves. It seems that women would be so much less of a distraction for men if the men would stop leering.
Afterwards, we went to lunch and then had a blissfully free afternoon. I wandered around Istanbul for a while, and stopped in a sweet shop to look for Turkish ice cream, which is supposed to be very excellent. I tried to get a man to let me taste a bit before I bought a gigantic tub (the only size they had), but even with the help of a mildly creepy interpreter I was unable and didn’t want to be stuck with a huge vat of normal ice cream on a cold day. Instead I got some tasty baklava and walked back to the hotel.
I sat next to Aysen at dinner, and finally broached a subject I’ve been hesitant to bring up: the Armenian Genocide. She was talking about how much Turkish people liked the United States, and how relations are so friendly, and I mentioned the recent house resolution. Aysen brushed it off – “These are just games the governments are playing, the people don’t care. We have always loved Americans.” I think she wanted to end the conversation about the Armenians there, but I pushed the subject a little more. She told me about going to Armenia, and how poor the people were there, and how she believed that the campaign to call it genocide was purely financially motivated. If the world believes it was genocide, she said, then Turkey would have to pay the survivors.
Furthermore, she told me that she believes the circumstances around the death of the Armenians was totally different than what happened during the genocides in Bosnia, or in Iraq, or in Germany – she said that the killing happened on both sides and many Turks and Armenians died. The Armenians, she says, were moved out of the country by the government to Syria or elsewhere in order to protect them from the turmoil in Turkey, and that along the way the Armenians brutally killed many Turks out of spite. The real reason for the mass number of Armenian deaths, Aysen told me, was the bad weather for which the travelers were unprepared. Our whole view of history is based on what somebody tells us; the story that I was told is completely different, and to me it is much more believable. But to Aysen, this is the story she knows and what she had incorporated into her world schema. It seems that what actually happened matters less than what the majority of people believe happened.
This morning, we woke up and ate breakfast, and Denny sent us off with some lire to go get lunch for the bus ride to the airport. I had eleven postcards that I have been saving to mail since Tanzania, and I stopped in at least four shops to find stamps when finally someone pointed me to the post office. It was a bit of a walk, and finally a huge official building labeled “PTT” appeared on the horizon. I walked inside and literally just stood for a few minutes trying to figure out what to do. I approached a window, and stupidly asked “Stamps?” and held out my stack of postcards. The man grunted at me, then pointed and said, “Not here. There.”
I walked over to the other window, which was probably clearly labeled in Turkish. “Stamps? Eleven?” The woman handed me a stack of stamps, and I paid, and tried to hand her the postcards. “Not here. There.” She pointed outside. I wandered around the hallway for a good five minutes before I found some discreet slits in the wall labeled “Asiatic Side,” “European Side,” “Inland,” and “International.” I slid the postcards into the International slit, and I resigned myself to being a dumb tourist once and a while. I hope you all get your letters.
For lunch, I picked up a pig intestine gyro. Aysen said they were very tasty, but I took a bite and did not enjoy the entrails’ flavor, so I gave mine away and ate a grilled cheese at the airport. We had about an hour before our plane took off after going through passport control and security, so I wandered over to the food court and sat down by myself. I can’t remember the last time I ate a meal alone, much less did anything alone, and it was a strange feeling. I feel like during this trip I identify myself as part of a group rather than an individual. So many times, I write “we” instead of “I,” because really everything is done as a unit. When people conspicuously wander off by themselves or sit alone, others in the group look at them strangely and wonder why they are isolating themselves. It’s going to be so strange, almost lonely to go home and do things by myself – I’m the only one from the group on my flight back to San Francisco, and I’m going to have quite a few hours without anyone else around me. I haven’t slept alone in a room for such a long time, and for most of that time someone was sharing a bed with me. I’ve become used to it, and kind of enjoy the constant company.
Anyways, it was touch and go in when we landed in Riga. We only had about ten minutes to make our connecting flight to Berlin, and I power walked through the initial security check and saw a sign pointing to the B gates and thought I was finally in the clear, when I was abruptly stopped at a passport checkpoint. I was the first of our group in line, and the women slowly took my passport from me, and stared and it and back at me for what seemed like an eternity. “First time in Latvia?” Yes. “Where you going?” Berlin. She gave me a cold stare. “What you do there?” Just vacation, I said. She stared at my passport a bit longer, and finally she stamped it and let me through.
I dashed to our gate and nobody was standing at the desk, so I went down the walkway too, right up the doors and they were closed. I stood in horror, and slowly walked back into the gate. Somebody was standing there and I asked him if the flight to Berlin had departed already. “No, it’s delayed.” The flight, thankfully, had been delayed by an hour so we got sandwiches and waited. Then suddenly, the monitor at the gate no longer read Berlin and the departure screens no longer listed a gate for the flight. Denny asked one of the flight attendants what had happened, and she got on the phone then reported that our flight had waited for the passengers from Istanbul, but then had taken off.
We were horrified. But then, the same man who had told me that it had been delayed stepped up and said, “The plane’s still there! It hasn’t taken off yet, they’re just waiting for the other plane to leave the gate and then it will board.” The flight attendant looked unconvinced, but in about ten minutes we were boarding and now we are on our flight to Berlin.
Tomorrow is our first precious free day since Tanzania, and in the morning we are having a thirty minute orientation from Denny, David and Sigrid. I’m surprised that the most western and familiar country we have been to yet requires an orientation, considering we were thrown into Thailand, India, Tanzania, the Maldives, and Egypt with no explanation and no helpful orientation to help guide us through the rough times. Hopefully they’ll be directing us to the best places to get beer… but almost certainly not.

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