13 May, 2010

if Iran away...

Oh, Iran, how i want to visit thee.

It all began on a bus ride home from Ankara. My friend Osman was saying how he thought maybe he'd make a journey after the semester. Someone he knew had been to Iran, traveling by train across the country on a shoestring budget, and highly recommended it. The idea didn't take shape immediately, but two weeks later it echoed in my head. Iran? Why not. Lonely Planet recommended it on a list of "Countries that can still be traveled on the cheap". Despite being reportedly illegal, there's a thriving community of CouchSurfers, especially in Tehran. And the sleeper train overnight from Tehran to the southern port city Bandar-e-Abbas costs less than $8 US. From there, i could catch a ferry across the Persian Gulf to Dubai. It could be a dream trip.

I dug deeper, searching for visa information and train timetables online; making a list of potential CouchSurf hosts as i went. First, just across the border from Turkiye was the norther city Tabriz. Home of notable sufi Shems, spiritual companion of the poet Rumi, Tabriz is populated by a mixture of ethnicities, including many Kurds and Azeris. There was an intriguing story about a young American missionary and teacher, Howard Baskerville, who fought alongside his Persian students in the Constitutional Revolution of 1909. Killed at the age of 24 and buried there in Tabriz, Baskerville became somewhat of a legendary figure - a martyr - to Iranians, and there are schools named for him in Tabriz. Since 1909, though, Iranian perspectives on the U.S.A. have changed.

Fun fact: Iran has the world's third-largest oil reserves. In the early 1950s, democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh decided to nationalize Iran's oil industry - a move popular among Iranians, but not with Britain (who had controlled those reserves through the Anglo-Iranian oil company) or their American ally. Enter CIA Operation Ajax, America's first (but not last) intervention to topple a democratically elected foreign leader - Mohammed Mossadegh. Apparently, we only support foreign leaders willing to rape their land for our benefit.

Traveling south by rail, i planned, i would visit Tehran and the beautiful Isfahan, one of UNESCO's world heritage sites, of which Iran is home to fifteen. (I was going to add a link, but i think you should just search "Isfahan" in google images.) I pored through CouchSurfing profiles for Tabriz, Tehran, and Bandar-e-Abbas, and uncovered glowing recommendations from travelers from the world over. But very few from Americans. I knew getting a visa could be difficult, and i sent messages to all the Americans i could find. One was traveling on an Indian passport; another, Iran-born, had dual citizenship. Finally Tucker Pyne, who's backpacking around the globe, emailed from Cambodia:

"Iran is, in fact, very cool. The people were thrilled to speak with a real live American, and I certainly never felt like I was in any danger. So here's the bad news ... you are required to have a guide ... at all times ... everywhere you go. And it is expensive."

A couple days later, another insider helped burst the bubble my Turkish friends had created. While Turks can visit Iran for three months without a visa, an American traveling alone, he reminded, would be seen by the Iranian government as a security risk. With a youth population increasingly vocal against theocratic rule, i could easily see myself as an unwanted cultural influence. Unless i wanted to visit visa-free Kish Island, i'd need an expensive babysitter. Which would rather cramp the whole backpacking-and-couchsurfing style. For once my desire to be an explorer, to experience the culture of an everyday Iran unfiltered by industrial media, would be denied by the red, white, and blue in my passport. Unless, of course, i decided to "go rogue" and potentially join the three American hikers currently in Evin Prison.


Postscript: As my hopes unfolded in a series of facebook status updates, one friend made an ignorant comment, referring to Iran's president Ahmedinejad as "Ahmed Imanutjob". Sigh. So much for working to understand others, to understand the world and why it is the way it is.

In the past few days i've come to realize more than ever that every story has two sides, and our reluctance as a species to embrace this fact has far-reaching consequences. Thanks to matters of perception, people on both sides of the story ironically feel the same. Yet instead of respecting each other and working for reconciliation, people make generalizations, others unquestioningly join the chorus, and the cycle continues. In almost every disagreement, both sides are at fault, but the desire to absolve oneself by relocating blame completely to the other party usually overcomes reason and truth. (Then of course, there are situations involving behemoth imperialist nations with industrial interests. Those are a bit different.)

That there are more military academies than peace academies, more soldiers than diplomats and more bomber aircraft than relief planes, stems from humanity's stubborn refusal to admit that our similarities are larger, stronger, and inevitably more valuable than our differences. And this is a failure of education - of the truest education, which is open and unprejudiced involvement in the world at large. I feel pretty lucky to be here.

10 May, 2010

For Christopher: mealtime in Turkiye

My nephew Christopher asks. "How do Turkish people eat, forks, knives, etc.? Or do they eat other ways? What do they like to eat for a main dish a lot?" So Christopolous, this post is for you.


One of the first things you realize when you come to Turkiye is that there are a lot of different ways to live here. Mall food courts look exactly the same as the ones you know, though the foods there are a little different. Next to Pizza Hut and Burger King you'll find lamahcun and the traditional fermented yogurt drink ayran. If you go a little farther afield to a traditional kebap joint you might end up trying şalgam, which is the fermented juice of purple carrots.

In the cities, people sit at familiar tables and eat with silverware. But in rural villages, meals are eaten around a low table or no table at all, just a big copper tray set on the floor. People kneel or sit cross-legged on carpets or sheepskin, drawing a tablecloth placed beneath the tray up over their knees. They might use their hands, or they might have forks, but usually there is only one plate of each food and everyone eats from it. For breakfast there might be menemen, which is a dish like scrambled eggs with sauteed veggies, and there is always sliced Turkish bread (like Italian bread), olives, and several kinds of cheese, and tea. In the village we drank hot milk with breakfast; at lunchtime we had a kind of bread called bisi that is like fried dough, and i was surprised to find that the grated-carrot-minced-garlic-and-yogurt salad sorts of things i make at home are actually traditional fare here. Maybe i have a Turkish soul.

Then there is dinner time. The question about what they like to eat for a main dish a lot is a tough one...In the seaside cities especially, fresh fish is plentiful. Things like hamburger and steaks are not common; instead there's köfte (meatballs) and kebap (grill) which come in many shapes and sizes. Different kinds of köfte or kebap are often named for the city they came from, such as Adana kebap which is served with a thin wrap and little sides of sliced onions and domates and mydonos (parsley) for you to arrange as you like. Rice pilav or bulgur - sometimes both - are often served as side dishes.

Another main dish is Iskender, which is meat served over little pieces of pita bread, with a red teriyaki-sort-of-sauce. For fast food, one of the fun things to eat is Lamahcun - kind of like a thin sauceless pizza. Then there's doner (meat on a spinning stick, shaved off and put in sandwiches) and pide. Çorbalar (soups) are also common here. My favorites so far are mercimek (lentil) and Ezogelin çorbası. There's another, yogurt-based soup similar to Ezogelin that is really tasty.

And of course we can't forget fruit, because the fruit here is really fresh. Ankara is a little like Boston, but just six hours away by bus is Antalya, which is like Florida. Because Turkiye has a diversity of climates and a very strong agricultural sector (which you'll see about ten meters outside of any city), native produce is available year-round. In January the oranges were outrageous. Now we've been eating fresh strawberries for a month. Another common fruit this time of year is green plums, which are a little smaller than golf balls and taste like a sour apple.

At mealtime there's one other thing you should know. Remember to tell your friends afiyet olsun. You can say it before you start, or if you meet some friends eating in the dormitory kitchen. Waiters will say it even after you've finished your meal. So don't forget - afiyet olsun. It means "bon apetit".

09 May, 2010

Morning on the Fatih Express

backdate: 7 May

....and it was a long wait. The three AM train was delayed until five, so thanks to a helpful station attendant, i switched tickets to board the Fatih Express at 4:30. On the platform i met a talkative Bulgarian, and proceeded to get no sleep whatsoever. But the night was worthwhile. Morning broke as the Anatolian landscape rolled past, a little slower, a little clearer.

With Plamen and his cellphone full of rap tunes for company, i felt as though i'd stepped into a hybrid of Liev Schreiber's "Everything is Illuminated" and Wes Anderson's "Darjeeling Limited".

Well before six AM we headed to the dining car for beer and french fries. The waiters looked about how i felt. Seven thirty we watched the YHT blur by on its first run of the day. I probably shouldn't have posted the dining car picture considering how miffed the head waiter was when i took it... but it's kind of priceless. File under - Morning on the Fatih Express.