Archive for April, 2009
I can’t roam the park, beach, run, or even relax on my back deck with my shirt off. For several more months, while my chest heals, I need to keep my scars completely out of the sun. And because I live in San Francisco, when there’s no sun it’s freezing. And when it’s freezing outside, it’s even colder inside my house. So, basically, due to environmental circumstances and temporary physical limitations, outside of topless activities — shower, sex, dressing, swimming — I haven’t had much topless leisure time.
Shortly after my surgery, I wanted to sleep topless so badly that at night, I’d get into bed and huddle underneath three blankets before taking off my sweatshirt, long-sleeve shirt, beanie, and t-shirt. First thing in the morning, without lifting even one blanket, I’d put the t-shirt, sweatshirt, and hat back on. This got old after a few weeks.
But the recent heat wave in San Francisco has given me the long awaited opportunity to walk around my house in just my underwear. It takes me a few seconds when I get home, about as long as it takes to think, “Fuck it’s hot,” before I realize I can actually take my shirt off, that I want to take my shirt off. I lift my arms, grab the back of my shirt, pull it over my head, and fall back onto my bed. I feel devious, as if I’ve found a suitcase full of unmarked bills, enough to start anew. Freedom. I don’t care where it came from or how I got it. I’m gonna take it and run, run, run…
My eyes fluttered open to the daylight and a flat desolate landscape of rock, scrub brush, and windswept sand. I closed my eyes for another half hour of rest. At 7 am the bus, or what would soon seem like a spaceship landing on an undiscovered planet, dropped us off in Cappadocia (Goreme Village). “Dude, this is weird,” I said. “Dude, this is weird,” Bro replied. Everywhere we looked, there were large rock cones rising from the earth, many with odd shaped holes that looked like windows. Perhaps it was the delirium of 16 hours of travel, and a night passed sleeping sitting up on the bus with its many interruptions — neck cramps, a violent Turkish drama blasting on the bus TV, the Jandarma (police) waking everyone to check identification — but this place was weird.
Remember those drip castles you made at the beach as a kid, holding the wet sand and letting it spill through your fingers until small hills rose. Now picture them lifesize and you’ve got Cappadocia, a whole region of them. The reality of these formations is not that far off: a volcanic explosion thosands of years ago covered the ground with tuff, or ash, creating nature’s very own drip castles. Exposed to the elements — air, fire, and wind — the rock hardened into a landscape of these geological spectacles, the main draw to this region.
People lived, ate, and prayed in these caves, some of which were called fairy chimneys, for the smoke rising out of the the narrow tops and the observes who imagined that fairies, not humans, must’ve been inside. As you may have guessed, most of the of activities here surround viewing these formations — from the inside (most of the hostels/hotels are in caves), outside, the sky (in a hot air balloon, which we skipped). My fascination carried me through the first day and the open air museum, a collection of cathedral and church caves, many with frescoes from the 11th and 12th centuries, some mindblowing in their intricacy and others that looked like Pictionary drawings of pizza. The second day, we took a bus tour of the region with a variety of odd stops, the green tour, or the “And then” tour. We’ll see a cave church, and then a valley hike, and then lunch, and then a cave church, and then an underground city (a multi-floored 4km square collection of rooms, tunnels, ventilation shafts, and stone doors, built 50-80 meters below ground that was pretty damn cool and not for the claustrophobic), and then another cave church, and then another cave, and then an onyx demonstration, with its not so subtle purpose to sell us tired and weary souls jewelry.
For fear that this travelogue turned into one giant humorless “And then” days ago, I’ll stop it right here.
Today, our last full non-travel day of the trip (tomorrow we fly, thankfully, back to Istanbul, and then home on Saturday), and it is raining, our first truly bad weather day. Which suits our mood, our desire to do nothing but cafe hop and read and have one final day of relaxation, both Bro and I knowing we have work on Monday.
While I’m ready for yoga and running, salads and fruit, I could easily stay in Turkey for another two weeks, the time that it would take to explore the Black Sea coast perhaps and maybe head East, slightly off the beaten path, the time that it would take for this place to sink through my skin and seep into my bones. What I have now is an awareness of the history and the challenges of a country that straddles East and West, a developing taste for the varying regional foods, an appreciation for the amazing kindness and friendliness of the Turkish people, and a cursory experience of the different landscapes — sea, city, and moon. But my understanding is vague; this is just the beginning. I’ve always found that to feel a place, I need to sit in it, that understanding comes not from the sights ticked off, but the interstices between them, the absorption of things heard and seen at a market, restaurant, or on the bus.
It’s been a little while since I’ve taken a “backpacking” trip, one in which there is no plan, no agenda, and all is decided as we go. I had my doubts about myself, that I might’ve grown out of my lust for the travel lifestyle that dominated my twenties. And although now, I’m often willing to pay a few bucks more for a double hostel room rather than a dorm, not that much has changed. Yesterday, when we were on the “And then” bus tour, I looked around. We were Spanish, Brazilian, British, South African, American, Canadian, Japanese. Exchange a few words with anyone, and it was clear we’d all been ripped off, slept in gross beds and on long buses, taken a bunch of excessively long monotonous guided tours just like this one, and we were united in that we wouldn’t trade these experiences for anything. I may be older, but the one thing that is the same is that I’m at home on the road, at home with fellow travellers, deepening my humanity and opening myself to the foreigness and vulnerability that comes from stepping outside the known. On that bus, I felt a sense of community as strong as the one I feel in San Francisco amongst my fellow trans guys and queers. At one point, I was chatting with the South African about his time spent living in Zanzibar and the guided overland tours he led from Eastern Africa to the south. “It’s brilliant,” he said. “Oh man, is it brilliant.” My mind took off on the possibilites, the adventure, the enormity of the world and my curiousity to explore it.
But until then, my final advice for those traveling to Turkey: Learn to play backgammon first. Don’t go in July or August.
It is part of my travel philosophy to take vacations within vacations, an escape from the escape. Bro and I shoved our winter jackets to the bottom of our packs, pulled out our bathing suits and headed to the Western Mediterranean coast, a town called Fetiye, where at all hours of the day men with bristly paintbrush mustaches play backgammon and sip tea from tulip bulb glasses at cafes that line the harbor, and two decker boats, each holding a max of 150 people, are docked in a row as far as the eye can see, the occasional workman with an electric sander or a bucket of paint crouched by the hull, preparing the vessel for the explosion of tourist season.
One boat is ready, or desperate, and thus has a monopoly on the island cruises, on 18 of us interested travelers, about half the visitors to the town. A natural separation sent the families to the lower deck and the sunphiles — mostly teachers in UK schools on break, like Bro — to the mats laid out on the upper deck, as the trail of morning clouds said their final goodbye.
Our near private boat, sandwiched between clear blue skies and a clear blue sea, cruised from island to island to island, until all Bro and I could do was turn to our new friends and exclaim, “Another one?!” So quiet were these island coves and inlets, the only sounds came from our shouts and splashes as we took turns canonballing (and dangerously backflipping) from the top rail of the upper deck.
I’m not the biggest travel partier, but I liked our new friends, and as I said to the one planning to go paragliding the next day, “It’s not like I have to do anything tomorrow, but ride a bus.” Famous last words. We shared a bottle of raki (the doing of the half-Turk, half Ozzie — guess who was doing the boat backflips) hit up the one Irish bar, where we decided Bro is the love child of Adam Sandler and Ben Affleck, and ended up at a bar with the awesome name, Car Cemetary, packed with locals, if only becuase it was Saturday night. Somewhere before the place closed, Bro and I danced like two white boys to the live Turkish rock band, receiving only a few evil stares, and trying to ignore the flashes of our friend’s camera capturing evidence. Everyone has a perfect travel day. That was mine.
I didn’t fully comprehend the degree of my hangover until I finished the large glass of freshly squeezed tart pomegranate juice at the bus station. The second our minibus hit the first bump, I turned to Bro. “Just breath” he said. But the bus only had one window (useful only for the driver to smoke a cigarette), and all I could inhale was a passenger’s horrific body odor, gasoline fumes, and stale air. For an hour, I fought the explosion of the purple water balloon in my stomach into the pail by my foot until the liquid finally stopped sloshing around inside.
I stared out the window as we passed the sheer plastic covering of the greenhouses where they must grow the local vegetables. While there’s no shortage of vegetarian (or pescatarian) food, the peppers and zucchini and green beans are soggy and blanched, as if the chlorophyll has been beaten out, or soaked for too long in the oil that forms the soupy base of every dish. Two hours later our minibus turned a windy bend and spit us out by the sea once again.
As if someone stood atop a 500 meter sheer cliff and dropped a town over the edge, only to have it land before falling into the Mediterranean. This is Kas. I define a small town, not by the population of people, but by the population of roosters. Here there are many or so their comforting wails would indicate. We chose our hostel for its rooftop deck, the hammock and pillowed platforms and views of the boat masts in the wineglass shaped bay. From the outdoor computer where I type this, I can see the whole town — the sheets flapping on balcony clotheslines, the grizzled grape vines sprouting serrated leaves that climb the neighboring houses and weave through rooftop trellises, the orangy earthen tones of the steppest faces of the cliff wall, and on a hill, the crescent and star of the ubiquitous Turkish flag.
Yesterday, Bro and I rented kayaks, our only instructions, “Don’t paddle too close to Greece.” It pisses the coastguard off. So, we stayed away from the largest island, and focused on circling smaller ones, cutting across the placid open water, and hugging the Turkish mainland. Kayaks are so cool, like sitting on a glass-bottomed couch. The Mediterranan sea is as you might imagine — turquise kissed by emerald, deepening to a midnight blue.
But now, after sampling all the coastal fare — the grilled sea bream, fish casserole, and fried calamari, we will leave the cobblestone alleys and kids skateboarding around the Ataturk statue, for two buses, fourteen plus hours, and a destination that will probably require us to extricate our crushed, wrinkled winter jackets from our packs.
Today is the first day that the effects of jetlag and beer, the constant movement and steady stream of information, may have calmed down enough for my brain to work and for me to process some of this trip — but maybe not. I forgot how much backpacking, no cardio exercise, and meals that lack protein and often consist of bread and cheese (the meat here exacerbates my vegetarian tendencies) can suck the mental and physical strength out of a person.
The bro and I are in a town on the Mediterranean Coast called Fetiye. Last night we sat at a restaurant in an open air fish market where we picked out our sea bass and prawns from the daily catch and toasted what both of us considered the official start of our “vacation.” To me this meant staying in a private room with an ensuite bathroom and a shower that made me feel cleaner rather than dirtier. To my brother, this meant following the lead of the Turkish businessmen at the table next to us and sitting at dinner for two hours, stray cats and dogs sleeping under the table, while getting shitcanned on a bottle of raki — 90 proof grape spirit infused with aniseed, kinda like ouzo, that turns cloudy when mixed with water and had our waiter holding up fingers as an intoxication test for my bro when we left. To get to Fetiye, we’d traveled hundreds of miles, walked through a WWI war zone and an ancient city, taken a ferry, an overnight bus, and traversed two continents.
We started in Istanbul, where we took a cruise on the Bosphorous — on one side is Asia on the other side Europe, a suspension bridge separating the two, an image that is by no means visually stunning, but as a metaphor speaks to a city that is both modern and cosmopolitan and yet has a skyline of mosques with their round domes and pointed minarets, and speakers that broadcast prayers at irregular intervals, a constant reminder that this is a muslim country (although many people do not practice) — the primary reason according to some locals for why Turkey still has not been accepted into the EU.
The bro and I spent our two days in the city trying to enjoy the tourist sites (Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia), but mostly enjoying afternoons of Turkish tea and nargileh (hookah) and evenings of Efes beer while chatting up any local — usually hostel workers and our tour guides — willing to engage. (For me, this seemed like using my brother, the man, as the bait while I, perceived to be a woman after a few minutes time, and an undesirable woman at that, feel mostly ignored.) So far, I’d sum up the sentiment towards America as this: Obama, one thumb up; mention George W. and Obama quickly gets a two thumbs up. But Turks dig Bill Clinton — he apparently visited Turkey three times. Obama’s message of hope has not yet reached here. There’s a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude towards us, and a despair that comes from the futility of hoping for timely inclusion into the EU.
Next stop — Gallipoli — a peninsula along the Aegean Coast and an Australian movie (which bro and I saw in HS) in which Mel Gibson is incredibly young and ridiculously fetching. For four hours we toured the grounds of perhaps the most concentrated battles of World War I. Some crazy stats — 600 bullets fired per sq meter, 2000 casualties per sq kilometer. We saw the beach the Anzac troops landed on, the trenches, some spaced a mere 8 meters apart, that the allies — mostly Anzac (Australian and New Zealand) and British here — and Turkish troops tossed grenades and the occasional pack of cigarettes (or so we were told) back and forth between. We saw too many cemeteries, the headstones of 14 year old Ozzies who lied about their ages to fight, and we heard the historical narratives that brought what is little more than some hilly grass to gutwrenching life. We were led by our awesome guide, Hasan, so proud to be a guide there that he claims to sleep with his badge, and so kind that when we bumped into him at a locals’ restaurant, he helped us order and invited us to eat with him even though he hadn’t had a day off in months.
While museums aren’t my thing (not that unnecessary death is), I found the geographical positioning that goes into military conflict fascinating. This Gallipoli peninsula guards the Dardanelles (a strait) that leads to Istanbul and through to the Black Sea. Control the peninsula and control the waterways. The battles here, perhaps glossed over in the US, are of enormous importance to the Kiwis and Ozzies, commemorated by Anzac Day on April 25, for which many make the pilgrimmage. (We had to book our last night in Istanbul in advance because of the huge expected influx from Down Under.) Later, I asked an Ozzie what it is about these battles that are so imporant to inspire a memorial pilgrimmage — is it a nationalism that I, an American, don’t understand, the fact that Australia hasn’t fought in many wars? “The Anzac soldiers were there to die,” she said. “And they went anyways, knowing this.”
The next day (an overnight bus in the middle), and we were on the grounds of an entirely different type of history — the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Ephesus. (I’m guessing our favorite beer, Efes, is named after this.) Forgive my lack of general knowledge from times Before Christ or of archaelogy, but damn, this shit was old. Looking down one of the main marble streets flanked with pillars, or sitting at the top slab of the Grand Theater (which held 25,000 people), walking through the stone graves that made up the necropolis, stopping before a variety of fountains, and contemplating the athletics that went on in the gymnasium, for the only time other than watching the movie Gladiator did I actually get a sense for the life of an ancient city. I know there are plenty of tourist “ruins” that are a handful of stones and the rest is up to your imagination, but this was the real deal. I half expected to see a gaggle of toga-clad old dudes in the library and Socrates philosophizing in the Odeon, but that would be ridiculous — cause Socrates was Greek and all.
After knocking off enough must-see sights (even doing one up with a rather useless audio tour), Bro and I are done educating ourselves for a bit, and we put on our shorts and t-shirts for the first time today. Here in Fetiye all sorts of boats are parked in the harbor (gearing up for the impending start of the tourist season that I can only imagine is nuts and I’m glad to be missing) and across the bay snow-capped mountains dissappear into the clouds.
My brother went to a hamam, or Turkish bathhouse. I decided it was best not to brave the men’s side with him, and I can’t really get away with using the women’s side here.
So, as my brother recounts to me later, after he gets washed and exfoliated, he is lying on the marble slab in the sauna, where he makes a new Turkish friend, Ahmet (which Bro pronounces Achmet on account of too many years in Hebrew school). The two of them are shooting the shit and Ahmet suggests they go to a slightly more private area. I ask my brother if this seems suspicious to him, and he says no. I believe him because he’s already shocked a few locals by learning hello and thank you in Turkish and is generally overly friendly and engaging with the locals.
They chat for awhile, a conversation Bro enjoys. Then Ahmet informs my brother that he can remove his pestamal, or towel, wrapped around his waist. My brother considers this the kindness of a local teaching a foreigner the ropes of the bathhouse. If the tables were reversed, would you let this dude know he could let his junk hang out, I ask my bro. Hell no, he says.
My brother unwraps his towel and Ahmet glances. It’s only human, my brother says to me by way of explanation. (Bro may or may not have glanced back.) Ahmet asks if my brother plays sports, which he does. My brother re-wraps himself. You know you can take that off, Ahmet says again. I’m fine, my brother says. Do you have a girlfriend, Ahmet asks. Yes, my brother says and finally jets.
I had to mock my brother for being clueless, just a little. But you have to give people the benefit of the doubt, he said to me with a smirk. I could tell he felt a little proud to be hit on and to have a story and to have made his first Turkish friend. And I was kind of proud of him, too. For giving a gay dude in the sauna the benefit of the doubt, and almost getting laid.
A thousand bicyles chained outside the Amsterdam train station. It may seem like an exaggeration, but to my exhausted eyes, there appeared to be that many one-speed beaters. During my seven hours wandering around the labrynthine city, I would see everything imagineable on a bicycle: people trailing dogs on leashes, eating ice cream cones, smoking cigarettes, text messaging, gabbing on cell phones, cats in laundry baskets, young boys riding in milk crates, young girls ridng on handlebars, empty kiddie seats, high heeled shoes pushing pedals, no helmets, one lone bozo in spandex on a road bike, a dude carrying two-by-fours in one hand, many pretty women in skirts riding side saddle on back fenders.
On a perfectly clear and sunny Friday afternoon, there was no place in the world I would have rather been.
At the airport, I didn’t need to fill out any customs paperwork or transfer any bags for my flight to Istanbul, and when I tried to declare my turkey sandwhich and carrots, I was quickly ushered out of the airport as if no one could be bothered. It took me approximately 40 minutes from arriving at my gate to end up in my first coffee shop.
I’ve always found the people in Amsterdam to be laid back. Usually, I find this endearing for a couple of days, then want to shout, “Put down the spliff and bring me my check.” I imagine this is what New Yorkers mean when they come to San Francisco and say its too laid back for them. But on this Amsterdam trip it only took me an hour to realize that I had to find at least two wall clocks with the exact same time to consider it legitimate.
One of my early stops was a sex shop. I asked the cashier where a good queer bar was for the afternoon, but he would not offer any recommendations and only pointed to a strip of them. He claimed it was policy because if a customer didnt like the bar it would reflect badly on his shop. He was decked head to toe in leather, including a choke collar. And I understood. How was he to know if I was a dyke or a transfag, if I was looking for bears or twinks, to be a daddy or find a daddy.
After following a trail of rainbow flags looking for a desirable bar, I realized I’d been flying for ten hours, had a few Tylenol PMs and Percocets and a bottle of wine on the plane, and that if I drank a beer, my head might actually fall off. I sat by a canal and made the mistake of taking a picture of myself. My face had more grease than my hair, and we all know I don’t wash my hair. If I didn’t keep moving, I thought my eyelids might slam against my face and kill me.
I gave myself a task. Find ice cream. However, with the added challenge of trying to kill a gram of pot, this took me into the early evening. As I wandered and strolled, the whole city came out to join the party. People drank beers on the sidewalks, the doors of their houses swung open. At the intersection of every cobbled street and every canal, small tables boasted golden Heinekens. On the canals, boats motored by, wine glasses in the hands of the passengers. The whole city was one gigantic outdoor bar packed with gorgeous people–all the men gruff and handsome and so stylie they had to be a tiny bit gay and the women fit and fashionable. I would probably sleep with 40% of that city.
But like a long weekend at Dolores Park when Friday afternoon turns into Sunday night and the inked and hip blend in to one homogenous circus, Amsterdam may be better off taken in small doses. As the sun dipped and I pulled out my sweatshirt for the first time, I sat outside the train station and finally had a beer, knowing that I had survived and thrived on my layover.
When I landed at my hostel in Istanbul, I had been traveling for approximately 27 hours…
I have about 48 minutes, give or take, depending on how much I want to risk missing my flight, until I leave for the airport for my trip to Turkey (via a 10 hour layover in Amsterdam) where I will meet my younger brother, Eric, in Istanbul. We packed together over Gchat this morning. (The distilled exchange: You bringing batteries? Flipflops? I’m packing light. Sunscreen? I’ll bring some. Comfy pants? I’m packing light. What about an Ipod? Don’t want to lose it. Hat? I’m packing light. Books? Dude, don’t worry, I’ve got plenty of books for you.)
The first two times we traveled together (Europe ’97-ish, Costa Rica ’01-ish), I sent him detailed packing lists. I had it in my head the best way to organize a backpack was to compartmentalize in small plastic bags, every article of clothing rolled up. I only realized the ridiculousness of this on the second night at a Paris hostel when my brother pulled a pair of rolled up boxers out of a Ziploc freezer bag.
While preparing for my trip this morning, I felt the confidence of knowing I’m now an expert packer, and that familiar rush of excitement that comes from knowing I will spend the next two weeks using a towel that is the size and thickness of three paper towels, treating my headlamp as my most prized possession, and carrying around five books and a journal but no quality soap (two hotel bottles of Neutrogena Rainbath).
I was kind of surprised that I had enough room in my pack for everything on my bed. I’ve always heard the direction: make your pile, cut it in half. But I think I do that mentally already, so instead of cutting down to one bottle of Rainbath, I didn’t add anything extra to the bag, even though there’s probably still room for a baby under the age of one. I did overpack some stuff (other than books), like pills and underwear.
So, I’m on my way to Amsterdam for what will probably amount to 6 hours wandering the canals, revisiting my favorite cafes, and having a Friday happy hour beer in a queer bar, before blogging about it. Either that, or in a fit of sleep-deprived desperation, I’ll drop 50Euros to crash out for 4 hours in an airport hotel room called a yotel. I’ve definitely made some questionable layover decisions before, like a 3 day stopover in Brunei. (Lesson: Only 24 hours are necessary to visit countries I’ve never heard of that are the size of Delaware.)
It’s been almost a year since I’ve seen my bro, and I’m so excited to hang and travel with him. He always knows the right thing to say, like this morning, before signing off Gchat, he wrote:
“Dude, don’t forget to get back on the plane in Amsterdam…”