Saturday, September 24, 2011

Istanbul Nightclub DJ's get no First Amendment Protections

We spend the night partying at a famous Istanbul disco, whose best feature, in my opinion, was the seven story winding staircase one need ascend to gain entry. This is of course serves a warning, meant to give unwitting customers a chance to turn back before being exposed to DJ’s that are intermixing Ray Charles, with Middle Eastern music that might satisfy only the most rhythmically impaired- the songs had no beat whatsoever.
I had heard good things about Istanbul night life, and this place was packed, but authorities in New York City would have closed down the place and fined the owners hundreds of thousands of dollars on music selection alone, First Amendment be damned. (And they’d be right to)

The next morning we start by investigating the touristy part of the city.  We stop by the Grand Bazaar, a gigantic complex of small shops selling everything from trinkets, to T-shirts, to antiques, to masses of gold.
Gamze is proud of the fact that Turkey both sells and produces some of the best counterfeit name brand clothing in the world. “We’re #1,” she brags, “It’s almost indistinguishable from the real thing. "Gucci" is of course on full display.

 I see an antique dagger with a scabbard decorated in heaven, prominently displayed in a shop window. It turns out it is 80 years old, and the owner wants $2,000 for it, a price I visibly recoil at.
“Can I just film the dagger?” 
            “Sure,” he answers disappointedly, without moving to get it for me.
             “Could I hold it while I film, please?”
             “Just film it through the window.”
             Obviously we’ve all experienced this before, storekeepers whose only interest is how much money they can extract from you. I have to say, in my two visits to Istanbul, it’s more pronounced here than elsewhere.
                “You know what, you’ll never be a great salesman until you can greet all your customers with love. You’re just concerned about numbers, I assure you when you become interested in the heart first, and making that connection with someone, your numbers will follow.”

A quick look at the Grand Bazaar

                We take a ferry to the Asian side, then bus after bus after bus, til two plus hours later, we finally arrive in Gamze’s neighborhood. Public transport here is ridiculously packed, the vehicles ancient and dirty;  often smelly.
                The jammed streets and highways create awful amounts of pollution; at times it can be hard to breathe, as air regulations that we have in America, which Republicans rail against as bad for business, are non-existent in Istanbul.

A crowded Turkish bus- almost entirely male

                We get to the last leg of journey, a small bus that waits until it’s completely packed with sardines before leaving. It costs about eighty cents to climb the steep hill, Gamze’s house at its pinnacle. This middle class neighborhood is at Istanbul’s highest point. My view of the city is far reaching.
                Wanting to show up with a gift for Gamze's mother, we stop by a roadside stand selling baklava. 20 something pieces fit into the 5 lira box, quite a contrast to an earlier offer when we had stopped in one of the numerous sweet shops in town, and I had asked to purchase one piece of baklava to try.
                “No no, minimum order four pieces, 10 Lira.” (almost $6)
                Just another rip-off attempt. The shopkeeper saw a tourist and immediately tried to take advantage. It's in mankind’s greedy nature to extract as much from any situation as they can, rather than act fairly and plan for the long term. It’s symptomatic of how we treat, not only our business dealings, but our environment, politics, and relationships. I've even heard of people so shortsighted they would trade humanity's universal freedom of speech, which people have paid for with their lives, for which wars have fought, just to shut down an Istanbul nightclub because of their horrendous music. But he'd be right.
Me, Gamze, and her awesome Mom, Birgu
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Friday, September 23, 2011

The Beatles/Michael Jackson Ramadan concert - Istanbul, Turkey

I’m absolutely elated that someone's waiting for me at the airport besides the FBI (which is usually the case.) Gamze tells me the fastest, and cheapest way into town is the metro, which rolls right into the airport. Wish we had one in LAX! I drag my bags through the barriers, and onto the trains, changing twice before arriving in Taksim Square, which is one of the two big tourist areas of Istanbul.
“So, we can stay here, or we can go to my house,” Gamze offers.
“Where do you live?”
“On the Asian side, two to two and a half hours away, depending on traffic.” Wow! She came two and a half hours for me.
“Well, I’ve done enough travelling for today, let’s stay here."
“Okay, let me call my Mom and make sure it’s okay with her.”
“Umm … wow. How old are you?” 
“Okay … call away.”
Checks out. We check in. Immediately venture out. Gamze starts her tour. She’s done research! She’s written down history of the Istanbul sights to see! She’s taking her role as tour guide very seriously! I must have a reputation as a demanding tourist.
Gamze's cheat sheet notepad with Turkish touristy info
This sweet girl is also a brain. Turns out she's going to the University and majoring in mechanical engineering, one of only 5 girls versus 100 guys entering the program.
"Is that why you chose the major?" I ask.
"No," she giggles, "I really love math, and physics, I'm really good at them."
I look at her dubiously. "Come on ..."
"You realize," I remark, "All the boys are going to be waiting on the school steps for you, and when you arrive will surround you like a Disney Princess, and you can laugh at the sky, accepting their apples, then point to a few of them individually and say, 'Today you get to carry my books; you can walk my dog; and you, you lucky guy, get to buy me lunch.'"

A quick visual of Taksim Square

The only transportation inside the mile and half long stretch called Taksim are public trolleys. It's loud enough to make their approach difficult to hear, which forces me to yank Gamze out of the oncoming path of one at the last moment. "You saved my life! How can I repay you my hero?" she dutifully asks.
She's already agreed to go skydiving tomorrow so I respond, "Sorry to tell you this, but I'm likely to fall back to even tomorrow."

Going to Church
Taksim Square, even during Ramadan, is crowded. Taking a break from surfing the waves of people, we step into a stunning Byzantine Catholic Church.
Byzantine Church ceiling
I think to myself of a girl in the Czech Republic who told me that cathedrals are built so gigantic, in an intentional effort to make you feel small and worthless.
Sitting amidst the majesty of the heavenly ceilings, towering above my physical form, my breath taken by beauty, my mind ceases as beingness remembers its infinite nature within.
Quite the opposite of small and worthless, I feel the vast expanse that simply is, that I am. I feel on fire.

Ramadan Beatles
We continue to the Bosporus, a narrow waterway separating the European side of Istanbul from the Asian. (It's the only city to span two continents) The sun is starting to descend. A giant tent by the water has a longer line around it than there would be if all the Beatles were to be re-united, and playing a free a concert at this exact location, with Michael Jackson as their opening act.
"The government provides free meals during the evenings of Ramadan, which are served inside the tent," Gamze explains.
"You mean thousands of people are willing to wait in line for hours, just for a free meal?"
"Well, it's not so much for the free meal, it's for community and Ramadan camaraderie as well."
So of course, we get into line- by which I mean, we cut; deep, close to the front. Looking around, I'm surprised. Am I really the only white person who likes the Beatles and Michael Jackson.
Should I feel uneasy waiting for free food with all these people so different than I? Maybe I should choose to feel like a fish out of water. Fox News has taught me how warlike and short fused these Middle Easterners are. I shouldn't like these people.
Just thinking about it gets me mad. Now I'm almost hoping someone confronts me, maybe I can do my gay street tough Seinfeld impersonation to really infuriate them. (If you don't get the "gay street tough" Seinfeld reference click here for a brief video.)

Turkish guy: "Wait. What are you two doing?"
Me: "What does it like we're doing? We're cutting the line."
Turkish guy: "You can't cut the line. I've been standing here for hours."
Me: "Look, you want to get hurt? I don't think you want to get hurt, cause if you want to get hurt, I can hurt you. So just, back off, okay."
I turn around and pat Gamze on the head.
Turkish Guy: "What is this? This is outrageous!"
I whip around in disbelief.
Me: "What is it your not understanding. We're cutting the line, and that all there is to it! Okay?!"

Unfortunately, the Turks reacted just the opposite, they welcomed us. There I am, chatting it up in barely understandable English with people incredibly happy to make my acquaintance. No doubt having a white boy in line with them was an oddity, but they were so warm and friendly; this is just wrong, isn't it?.
This is the Middle East baby. I'm cutting the line. According to Fox News, Al Qaeda is sure to kill me on the spot, maybe turn it into a video. I'm exposing my throat here.
But these people are so warm, they want to laugh, meet me, enjoy themselves. I'm dancing around, playing with kids, several Turkish girls asking if they could take their picture with me, exchanging stories, laughing at almost everything. I didn't have a good time in line, I had a great time.
The majority of people in this world, as I've said before, just want to the chance to lead a good life, be loved, and love others. You come with that energy, people almost always reciprocate in kind.

When the sun finally sets, water is guzzled in unison by all. It must have looked like we were shooting a commercial for Evian. It's their first sip of liquid of this hot summer day.
Morsels of food are shared by all. I myself offering my bag of figs I purchased a couple hours earlier. Within a minute, they are gone.
The line starts to move, people pouring into the tent. Despite our incredible talent at cutting, (90% of the line) it still takes a half hour to get inside.
The meal is simple and cheap, with hungry Turks digging in, concentrating on their food. I don't feel like eating, I won't remember the meal. I don't even think I'll remember Michael Jackson moon-walking on stage right now.
I had way more fun simply waiting in line.

Check out a brief vignette of our waiting in line and our meal

"Ramadan Blessing" 
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Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mental Patient Escapes to Istanbul

Kazantip, Ukraine

“Are you crazy?!” It’s not so much a question as a statement you’d make to someone who’s wearing his Bellview Mental Hospital sweat suit, while you listen to a radio report about an escaped mental patient, while watching him use a Chihuahua as a towel to dry himself from the fierce rainstorm he's hallucinating. I mean, for Christ's sake, at least use a bigger dog man!  
“Booked a ticket to Istanbul yesterday. All accommodations here sold out from tomorrow night on.”
“Well Jesus, stay with us already. Making the trek all the way out here, and leaving right before opening night would be like wining and dining a super-model for a month, and getting up to leave during foreplay,” comes his response.
Since he puts it that way ... I certainly don't want the derisive scorn from my mates associated with making a such an unmanly mistake! That plus the fact that he’s already on the phone with Bellview authorities trying to return them their rightful property ... I readily agree to his offer.
I had met a Turkish girl in Odessa who seemed quite excited to show me around Istanbul, but right now I am seriously considering missing my flight, something I’ve never done. It's unlikely I’ll ever be out all this way to experience this party again.
I return late from my meet-up with the Russian Models and receive a text telling me the offer of accommodations is void, that they are truly unable to fit any more people into their overstuffed room here in Kazantip.
Internet has been down all day, not an uncommon occurrence out here, and I have no place to stay tomorrow, and I have nothing prepared for Istanbul, and no way to book. 
I wake-up a few hours later. Still no Internet. I have little choice, I get in a cab, drive two hours to the airport. Convince the VIP Lounge to let me use their Internet. I log on and there’s a Facebook message from Gamze (Turkish girl) stating that she’ll pick me up from the airport, “write me back to confirm you’ll be here,” I excitedly start to reply, when my lap-top crashes.
Since May the hard drive has told me it was planning to self-destruct. Every time I have logged on I get the warning, “Hard Drive Failure Imminent,” and now apparently was as good a time as any to follow through on the threat.
My computer won’t come back to life. Great, now I am going to show up in Istanbul with no computer, no place to stay, and Gamze refreshing her Facebook page, thinking me a rude, monstrous putz for not even bothering to reply.
I tinker with my computer as long as I can, zero success, race downstairs to my plane, becoming the last passenger to board. 
Bye-bye Kazantip
I'm flying by the seat of my pants yet again, an hour and a half later landing at Atta-Turk Airport. I think to myself I leave too much to fate, that a little preparation would go a long way. Now I have wasted all this time, energy, and money getting to a city I wasn’t inordinately fond of last time I was here, and the reason that I came likely won’t even want to speak to me. Stupid Internet. Stupid computer. Stupid me. Maybe I do belong in Bellview.
With all these thoughts circulating my mind, I take a few conscious deep breaths, hoping to delay my own imminent hard drive failure. I have weaved my way through the long passport control line, and walk out into Big Bad Istanbul, trying to predict which scam the taxi driver is going to try to pull on me ---
“Richard!!!” comes the voice.
I turn to my right and look. There’s Gamze! Oh my God, she came to the airport! What if I hadn’t come?! Now I'm excited. Who cares about organization. Who cares about preparation. Everything works out for me. I live charmed life. I give her a big hug and dance around for a second. Happy feet!
As we walk away together, a commotion ensues behind us. I turn around and see some burly authorities with "Bellview" stenciled on the back of their uniforms affixing a straight jacket onto a struggling male they've pinned to the ground who's yelling, "You've got the wrong guy! You've got the wrong guy!!"

It's a near certainty he's right.    

Mental patient rides lion in Istanbul

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Russian Models Like American Eyes (Kazantip, Ukraine)

The sun takes a bow and disappears over the horizon as the citizens of Kazantip Nation applaud. As we approach the end of the week long lull between the Sports Games, and "opening night," things have started to pick-up, with more and more people arriving daily, including a perfectly formed golden haired being who's decided to descend from Mount Olympus and join us.
I see Aphrodite and her cute friend at a bar on the way out. I walk up and say hello. The Goddess of beauty speaks some English, her mortal name Vera. She introduces me to Svetlana, half Russian, half Korean, both models journeying here from Moscow for the festivities. Svetlana understands some English, but speaks almost none. I get to know them as much as I can, but the conversation is stilted, the language barrier making communication difficult as it has for me the entire week.  
The next night, my last in the Z, I am dancing in the Marlboro Lounge (yes, smoking is alive and well in Europe.) A pretty Gypsy dances by, casting her spell on me, my eyes following her, enjoying watching her groove -- 
"AYE! AY! What the fuck are you looking at?!" her boyfriend yells at me in Russian, understandable in any language.
"Allright dude, chill, it's Kazantip."
But he doesn't chill, he goes on yelling, posturing. I open my palms to the ground and press down, trying to to calm him, but this volcano keeps erupting, spewing fatal amounts of egoic possessiveness all around him.
I know if it was me I would have smiled, possibly said, "I'm glad you appreciate."
Now it's his fourth breath, and he's still erupting, screaming, threatening. The volcano is attracting attention over the loud music. I'm in awe of the massive size of this guy's frail ego. So this is where the Hitlers of the world come from. He finally pipes down, and I scoot a little away, trying to continue dancing, but I'm looking over my shoulder to see if he's going to come and try sucker punch me or something. It's time to go.

I walk down the beach, watching people dance, kiss, and enjoy themselves, yet I'm letting my thoughts and fears about some idiot take me out of the present moment. Is this really how I want to leave Kazantip?

I climb atop a dome shaped bar, enjoying the laser light show while I look out at the sea, the unceasing luminosity of the stars once again washing away my sense of self, my self-importance. I meditate there for a good half-hour, before a group of four joins me, toasting the night in celebration. They pour me a glass of champagne.
My thoughts have shifted from worried and disturbed, to silence, and the radiant love and appreciation of the moment that comes with it. Now I am ready to leave.

As I walk towards the exit I see Vera and Svetlana in the same bar as yesterday. Unhesitatingly I approach, smile, and say hello. I'm just there, present, enjoying their company.
Fifteen minutes pass, Vera looks at me, and speaks to Svetlana in English for my benefit. "He has American Eyes, doesn't he?"
"I do?" My eyes have been called green, shiny, cat, bright, but this is the first time I've heard a nationality ascribed to them. "What are American Eyes?"
American Eyes?
"Look at you," answers Aphrodite, "You're always smiling, your eyes are shiny, it's like you have no problems, how do you it? Are you always like this?"
"I'm in Kazantip, talking to two beautiful girls, on a warm night, under a starlit sky. How could there be any problems Now?"
"Are you always this happy?"
"I was being threatened a half hour ago, I wasn't all that happy ... but that was then, this is Now. Why should I let that affect me and poison my interactions with you?"
"Do you have such a great family or something?"
"My family is very small, I rarely see them."
"Maybe it's that you don't have to see your family that makes you so happy."
"No, I feel joy, cause I am here, now, speaking to you. It's been a process for me, and I'm not always like this, but what problems exist for you right now? Not in your mind. When you let all the problems that exist in your mind go, there's nothing left but the beauty of this moment."
"Eckhart Tolle," she says, quantifying it so the mind can understand, make sense of it, make it less threatening to the ego, "I'm reading that book in Russian."
"Great, and the power comes in being able to apply it. It's still work in progress for me."
Vera, writer, Svetlana
I sit there in silence, I have little else to say. My heart is open, and I realize that despite being from Mount Olympus, she's human, with her own doubts and insecurities. She believes herself to be mortal. Her body, yes, her soul, her consciousness, no.
I think about my ex-girlfriend Maria, from the same heights of gorgeous, yet how much anguish still existed inside her. People would see her, and be struck by her outward appearance, yet never take the time to find out how she felt inside, and how her own ego would convince her that her past affected the now, and how often the present moment would be poisoned by her fears and judgements.
She's no longer with us, by her own hand. I think it about it and feel sadness well through me. I allow that to pass, breathe in deeply, look at Vera and Svetlana, and feel into the beauty all around me, the same that is inside.
They smile at me. When anyone allows themselves to be fully present, when our bodies and hearts vibrate with the same frequency of the Universal Love, people and beings around you unconsciously recognize this, and it help awakens, if only for a moment, the same vibratory frequency inside of them.
American Eyes are just a symptom of this energy. Describe it as you like, divine love, God, even Eyes Americano, those words are just a sign post pointing to the ultimate truth. The Buddhists have a saying, "The finger pointing to the moon, is not the moon."
One day mankind might reach the moon. I'm glad to be able to reach it, if only on occasion. Anybody that wishes to join, is more than welcome.