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

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?

B.C., D.C., Arcadia and Ancient Red Bull

Walking the backstreets of a Greek town, I heard music with a special twang. It sounded like someone was strangling a yodeler. Greeks tap their feet to relatively exotic music that comes with a strong whiff of the Middle East. The 19th-century writer who noted that Greeks can’t dance to European music and vice versa was probably on to something.

In many ways, Greece marks the cultural divide between east and west. And Greece, the only country in the European Union not connected with the rest of the EU, is the only country in the EU with its own distinct script on Euro currency.

Driving into the heart of the Peloponnese peninsula, we passed into Arcadia. Our guide explained, “This was the ultimate boonies in the ancient mind: land of Pan, fauns dancing in glades, Virgil, Ovid and scenes from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

History has been hard on Arcadia. One town spelled out 12.13.43 on its hillside — the day all its men were killed by Nazis. Nearby, in the remote town of Dimitsana, men were generally spared from the draft because of their prized ability to make gunpowder — a complex family recipe of ground-up goat droppings, charred twigs and lime.

It’s a rough land with simple wines. A local vintner said there’s no fine $50 bottle of Greek wine. I asked him, “What if you want to spend $30?” He said, “Fine, you can buy three $10 bottles.” You drink Greek wines quickly — whites within a year, reds within two or three. In Greece for wine, I go with the rotgut — retsina(it makes you want to sling a patch over one eye and say “arghh”). But I prefer the good local beer and the cloudy, anise-flavored ouzo.

If a tourist complains about the food, it’s “fish with heads and the same salads every day.” I like fish with heads — squeeze lemon luxuriously all over it and eat everything but the wispy little tail. And the same salad every day reminds me how every day I wish the USA valued taste over looks in its produce. An ethic that I find makes eating feel right is to eat things that are in season and grown locally.

Visiting ancient Olympia is a Peloponnesian pilgrimage for modern tourists. And it was a Mecca of ancient Greece as well. All wanted to come here once in their lifetime. The ancient Olympic Games were more than an athletic fest. They were a tool to develop a Panhellenic identity.

Every four years, leading citizens from all corners would assemble here. Athletes — aristocratic youth — would stay here to train for months, brainwashed without knowing it to be Greeks. There were no losers…except quitters and cheaters. (Drinking animal blood — the Red Bull of the day — was forbidden. There were actually official urine drinkers to test for this ancient equivalent of steroids.)

The modern games are still all about people coming together. The five rings emblem represents the five continents. (While the USA recognizes seven continents, the rest of the world — which considers the Americas one and Antarctica not one — counts only five.)

Ancient games were men only. Women weren’t allowed in our modern games either until only 1928. In 1936, Hitler’s Nazi Olympic committee designed the first ritual torch lighting — which we enjoy essentially unchanged to this day. In 1936, they ran the torch from Athens to Berlin. On March 24, 2008, the torch will be lit at ancient Olympia and begin its journey all the way to China.

There’s a lot of B.C. stuff here in Greece. Pretty soon B.C. can become D.C. On nameless hills, you’ll pass stony remnants of people from centuries…D.C. Just because something’s B.C. doesn’t mean it’s got to be seen. Be selective in your ancient sightseeing.