I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Britney Goes to Mosque

Sitting in a museum café, I heard tourists quizzing their guide — trying to get it straight. “So, where did they get the name Quran for their Bible? So, it could be considered a Bible?” Sooner or later, at a mosque visit, every Turkish guide is asked, “So, was this church built before or after Christ?” I like seeing guides heroically stay charming, and stick with the tour-guide mantra, “There are no stupid questions.”

Things are confusing. I’m here during the holy month of Ramadan and devout Muslims are high-profile in the streets. No-name neighborhood mosques literally overflow during prayer time and carpets are unfurled on sidewalks, interrupting the pedestrian flow.

At the edge of town, I passed an old shepherd with small flock enjoying some public grass in a freeway cloverleaf, surrounded by the sprawl of 10 million people. In the midst of all that modernity, he was raising sheep for an upcoming Muslim “sacrificial festival.”

Ramadan is, in balance, a great time to travel. You don’t realize it, but most people are not eating or even drinking all day. I offered my waiter a suck of my hookah water pipe. He put his hand to his heart and explained he’d love to, but he was fasting for Ramadan.

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If you sleep lightly, you’ll wake to the sound of a prayer and meal just before dawn. Sun rises and the day-long fast begins. Then, at about 7 p.m., the food comes out, and the festival begins. Mohammad broke his fast with dried date or olive — so that’s usually the fast-breaker to this day. Saying, “Allah kabul etsin” (may God accept…your fast today),” the staff at a restaurant where I was just having a drink welcomed me to photograph them and then offered to share.

Every time I witness the breaking of the fast, people offered to share their food. At the restaurant I said no, but they set me up anyway — figs, lentil soup, bread, Coke and baklava. I thought the Coke was a bit odd… but my guide said it’s not considered American any more. It’s truly global.

I don’t want to overstate this move to the right in Turkey, but keen and caring observers are concerned that it’s an ominous start. Imagine not being a fundamentalist and watching your country gradually become fundamentalist — one universal interpretation of scripture, religious clothing and prayer in school, women covering up and accepting a scripturally ordained subservient role to men, laws being rewritten. A ruling class that believes they are right and others are wrong.

I have friends in Turkey almost distraught at this country’s movement to the right.

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It’s an emotional and confusing thing to witness and try to understand. It’s an evolution that is like a rising tide…seemingly impossible to stop.

I am intrigued by teenage Muslim Britney-wannabes covering up under scarves. You know they wear high heels and thongs…but their heads are covered. In a fine silk shop, the girl there demonstrates scarf-wrapping techniques. One way looks simply demure and conservative. Then she ties it under her chin and around her face with an extra fold on top and she becomes orthodox. It was chilling to watch. I got goose bumps.

At the Eyüp Sultan Mosque, one attracting the most conservative worshippers, state-employed female security guards were wearing conservative, religious headscarves (striking — even ominous — to local observers). Stalls offering free food, literature and computer programs with a Mavis Beacon-type prayer guide surrounded the mosque. Targeting poor and less-educated cross=sections with incentives, it reminded me of the old-school “bras and bibles” strategy of Christian missionaries. People say there’s huge money (especially from Wahhabi Saudi Arabia) promoting Muslim orthodoxy.

The mosque was filled to capacity and the courtyard was filled with the overflow crowd. Village women knelt to pray with their men. My friend predicted that in two years, they will no longer pray next to men. She pointed to a stairway already filled with fundamentalist women who believed they should worship separately.

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There’s discussion of adding “women” to the section of the Turkish constitution which promises “children and the disabled are under the protection of the state.” Modern women wonder why they would be put in with kids and the disabled. Propaganda is directed at women, and it is the women who are pulling moderate Muslim societies like Turkey to the right.

I asked, “Should a Christian be threatened by Islam?” My friend said, “If you have self-confidence in your system, assuming it deserves to survive, it will thrive. Christendom should be threatened by Islam only if the Christian West seeks empire here.”

I find a huge irony in the American fight with Islam. I believe we’re incurring incalculable costs (real and intangible) because we are nervous about something we don’t need to be nervous about. And because we’re nervous about it, we need to be nervous.

Draping Minaret Lights on my Christmas Tree

The famous question travelers get from loved ones is, “Why are you going to Turkey?” As I settle into Istanbul, one of my favorite cities, my thought: Why would anyone not travel here? (And, frankly, why would anyone go to Athens at Istanbul’s expense?)

Settling into my hotel room, I do a trip-end sort through my clothes: dirty and too dirty to wear. I assess how much hand washing I’ll need to do to get home. I spin through the TV channels. Gauzy love songs for lonely men play in the wee hours. I hide the remote.

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Quite tired, I’m about to plop down on the toilet and I notice that small nozzle threatening to poke me in tail bone if I do. Not trusting the design, I sit gingerly…and find it’s okay. Still, this ominous little nozzle seems like the evil, germ-spreading equivalent of a bee-spreading pollen. I make a note to ask my Turkish friends about this finger and sprinkle alternative to toilet paper. (I’ll stick with TP.)

My hotel has a great breakfast terrace. It’s open at night for gazing past floodlit husks of forts and walls, out at the sleepy Bosporus, with Asia just across the inky straits. The strategic waterway is speckled with the lights of freighters at anchor stretching far into the distance. I recall the origin of the Turkish flag — a white star and sliver moon on a reflected in a pool of bright red blood after a great battle. Today, the sliver moon shines over not blood but money…trade and shipping…struggles in the arena of capitalism.

At breakfast, the same view is lively. An oil tanker heading for a Romanian fill-up is light and riding high — the exposed tank makes its prow cut through the water like a plow. As I scan the city, it occurs to me it’s physically not that different from my city. I could replace the skyline of domed mosques and minarets with churches and spires, and it could be the rough end of Any City, USA.

I’ve veered away from cereal, and for my Turkish breakfasts I’m going local — olives, feta cheese, cucumbers, tomatoes, bread and horrible Tang juice. Gazing at my plate, I study the olive oil. Ignoring the three olive pits — sucked very clean and floating like little turds — I see tiny, mysterious flakes of spices. They’re doing a silent do-si-do to distant lyrics that tell of arduous camel caravan rides from China.

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Later that day, wandering under stiletto minarets, I watch hardworking speakers lashed to the crow’s nest belt out a call to prayer. I think, “Charming, they’ve draped Christmas lights between the minarets.” But the people around me would come to my house and say, “Charming, he’s draped minaret lights on his Christmas tree.”

I marvel at the multi-generational conviviality at the Hippodrome — that long, oblong square still shaped like a chariot racecourse, as it was 15 centuries ago. Precocious children high-five me and ask, “What is your name?” Just to enjoy their confused look, I say, “Fifty-two.”

Istanbul Déjà Vu

Sitting down in the yellow taksiat Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport and seeing the welcoming grin of the unshaven driver greet me with a “merhaba,” I just blurted out, “Çok Güzel.” I forgot I remembered the phrase. It just came to me — like a baby shouts for joy. I was back and it was “very good” indeed.

I went through a decade-long period of annual visits, but it’s been years since I wished a Turk “merhaba” — that local “aloha” or “namaste” that ices rough people with gentility. My first hours in Turkey were filled with déjà vu moments like no travel homecoming I’ve ever had.

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As the taksi turned off the highway and into the tangled lanes of the tourist “green zone” (just below the Blue Mosque with all the tourist-friendly businesses still lined up with that desirous “Yes, Mister”), I looked at the dirty kids in the streets and remembered a rougher time, when they would earn small change hanging out the passenger door of ramshackle vans. They’d yell “Sirkeci, Sirkeci, Sirkeci” or whichever neighborhood was ahead in a scramble to pick up passengers in the shared mini-bus taksi’s called dolmus(that wild cross between a taxi, a bus, and a kidnapping vehicle literally and so appropriately called a “squish”).

While Turkey’s new affluence has killed the dolmus, the echoes of the boys hollering from the vans bounced happily all around me. “Aksaray, Aksaray, Aksaray…Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet, Sultanahmet.” My favorite call was for the train station’s neighborhood: “Sirkeci, Sirkeci, Sirkeci.”

Stepping out of my shoes and into the vast and turquoise (a color early French travelers took home as the “color of the Turks”) of the not-quite-rightly-named Blue Mosque, something was missing. Yes…gone was the smell of so many sweaty socks, knees, palms and foreheads soaked into the ancient carpet, upon which worshippers did their quite physical (as Mohammad intended) prayer work-outs. Sure enough, the Blue Mosque has a fresh new carpet — with a subtle design that keeps worshippers organized like lined paper tames letters.

Prayer lets out and a crush of locals heads for the door. The only way to get any personal space is to look up. And that breathtaking scene plays again for me — hard pumping seagulls powering through the humid air in a black sky, coming into the light as they cross in front of floodlit minarets.

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Walking down to the Golden Horn Bay and Istanbul’s churning waterfront, I miss the old Galata Bridge — so rusted with life’s struggles. But the vivid street life — boys casting their lines, old men sucking on water pipes, sesame rings filling cloudy glass carts — has retaken the new bridge.

And on the sloppy adjacent harborfront, the venerable “fish and bread boats” are still rocking in the constant churn of the busy harbor. In a humbler day, they were 20 foot long open dinghies — rough boats with battered car tires for fenders — with open fires grilling fish literally fresh off the boat. For a few coins, they’d bury a big white fillet in a hunk of white bread, wrap it in newsprint and I was on my way…dining out on fish.

A few years ago the fish and bread boats were shut down — no license or taxes. Now, after a popular uproar, they’re back. A bit more hygienic and no longer wrapping in newspaper — but still rocking in the waves and slamming out fish. (The 3 lire or $2.50 sandwich remains the best poor man’s meal going.)

In Turkey, I have more personal rituals than in other countries. I cap my days with a bowl of sütlaç. That’s rice pudding — still served in a square and shiny stainless steel bowl with a matching spoon not much bigger than a gelato sampler with a sprinkle of cinnamon.

And I challenge a local to a game of backgammon — still a feature in restaurants, tea houses and cafes. Boards no longer smell of tobacco, with softer wood inlays worn deeper than the hard wood.

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And now the dice are plastic, with obedient dots rather than the tiny handmade “bones” of the 20th century, which had dots that didn’t line up. I spun and paused…a bystander moved for me. As before, if you don’t move immediately, locals move for you. There’s one right way…and everybody knows it.

Today in Turkey the people, like those dots, line up better. There’s a seat for everyone as the dolmus are no longer so dolmus. Fez sales to tourists are way down, but scarf wear by local girls is way up. There’s a rigidity to the chaos and each of my déjà vu moments shows a society that stays the same while enduring great change.

Allahhhhh…Freaking Grandpa Out

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I’m in Turkey now. The country just had an election and it swung to the religious right. It’s the holy month of Ramadan and the atmosphere is charged.

Let me share some things I’ve learned about Muslim tradition — apologizing in advance for anything I get wrong because this is always dangerous territory…especially when you try to simplify and inject any playfulness.

(Any Muslim readers are welcome to set me straight, as I am quite certain that I have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God somewhere here. Any Christian threatened by the growth of Islam…please comment only in a constructive spirit of seeking understanding. I am a Christian who can live peacefully with Islam. I’d rather this not be one more battleground on that issue.)

Traditionally, as the sun prepares to rise, an imam stares at his arm. When he can tell a grey hair from a black one, it’s time to call his parish to prayer.

While quality and warble varies, across the land the Arabic words of the call to prayer are exactly the same. The first one of the day comes with an extra line.

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Praying is better than sleeping,
God is great (Allahhhhhh akbar…)
I witness there is no other God but Allah
I witness Mohammad is Allah’s prophet
Come join the prayer
Come to be saved
God is Great…God is great
There is no other God but Allah

My hotel is within earshot of five mosques. They say tiny mosques can’t afford a musician, so the imam himself does the singing — not always top-quality. Big mosques have a trained professional singer — much better. To the non-Muslim ear, it sounds like coyotes howling in a cacophony. My challenge (which I succeed at) is to hear it as a beautiful form of praise that sweeps across the globe like a stadium wave, undulating exactly as fast as the earth turns…five times a day.

As pre-Vatican II Catholicism embraced Latin (I guess for tradition, uniformity and so all could relate and worship together anywhere any time), Islam embraces Arabic. Turks recently experimented by doing the call to prayer in Turkish, but they switched back to the traditional Arabic.

The trained singer is a “Muezzin.” “Ezzin” means prayer. “Mu” before a word in Arabic is like “er” after a word in English — it means “one who does it.” Muezzin.

The Koran says “Abraham was a good submitter (to the will of God).” The word for submitter is “Muslim” derived from “Islam” (submit) with a “mu” (one who). Islam means submit, Mu-Islam (contracted to “Muslim”) is literally one who submits. I followed up asking my friends “how about eat and eater?” They said, “We don’t know Arabic.”

Traveling in Islam, the call to prayer sounds spooky to many Americans. My time in Turkey, with the charming conviviality of neighborhoods in the streets that comes with Ramadan (just as it comes with Christmas where I come from), reminds me how travel takes the fear out of foreign ways.

Traveling here also reminds me how my Dad used to be absolutely distraught by the notion that God and Allah could be the same. I taught our son, Andy (when he was about three years old) to hold out his arms, bob them up and down, and say “Allah, Allah, Allah” after table grace just to freak out his Grandpa.

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Then I took my Dad to Turkey.

Swollen Memories in Greece

I have another week or so of travel: filming in Rome for three days (St. Peter video for the Lutheran Church) and six days in Istanbul (updating and fine-tuning our first-edition Istanbul guidebook).

With the Greece tour finished, I said goodbye to our group and to Anne, who flew home. (By the way, I asked Anne if she wanted to share her thoughts on Greece on this blog, as so many of you have requested. She said “No thanks.” She likes her privacy as much as I like to be public…which I find perfectly understandable.)

Speaking of Anne’s privacy, let me tell you about a medical problem she had. She got stung by something in the harsh Mani Peninsula and her hand swelled up worse and worse over three days. At Mystras, we decided she should see a doctor. While the group toured the site, our driver took her to the local clinic, where a fine doctor sized up her problem and fixed her up with the right medicine.

Of course, being in Europe, the visit was covered by the national health care. Our group got talking about “free medical help” in their travels (which is, of course, not free but paid for in high taxes). Many people had happy stories — enjoying fine doctors, quick service and first-class care for no cost.

After seeing Michael Moore’s new movie, Sicko, I’ve been thinking about the beauty of a land where doctors can “care maximize” rather than “profit maximize.” European doctors seem to enjoy a system that allows them to do their work without regard to people’s ability to pay. When it comes to national health care, Michael Moore made Europe look even better than I do.

I’d love to hear any stories about finding (and funding) emergency health care while traveling in Europe. Can you share your experience?