Thursday, September 19, 2013

Buying Turkish Carpets

Turkey, how the hell do I even start?  Everything about the country was so intense, especially to my innocent little American senses, right down to the simple act of buying a floor covering.

After over 24 hours of travel and an 8 hour time difference, I had arrived in Turkey miraculously with my luggage and ready to throw all of myself into seeing the city.  This was my first time traveling with someone that I had not met along the journey since I was 19 years old and went to Mexico with my crazy roommate.  I was nervous about it, but she didn't kill me, so I think it went ok.

After walking around in a daze wandering old town, we ended up on a cobblestone street leading up a hill, not far from our ghetto-fab Turkish guesthouse.  So many great things to see from windows! Gorgeous ceramics and whole shops filled floor to ceiling with lanterns... or jewelry, tiles, hookahs or rugs!

I managed to convince my friend to go into a rug shop, I just want a little look, I said, afterwards I promised we could go to the jewelry shop next door that I could see she was eyeing.

A good-looking Turkish man, just slightly shorter than myself, dark hair and a figure that any gay man would kill for swiftly jaunted over and led us over to a sofa in the corner of the shop

Make yourself at home! Make yourself at home!

He yelled in between ordering for a few idlers to bring tea! bring tea! you like tea, yes?

Somehow after a brief introduction and establishing that I was vaguely interested in seeing some carpets, Sahin, as I learned the man was named, was able to convince us to move to another room in the basement of the building filled with piles upon piles and rolls of carpet wall to wall where we sat drinking cup after cup of tea as he yelled to four different helpers to unroll this! Take away that! Get this! As I was dazzled as carpet after carpet was unrolled before me, Sahin of course refusing to share the price until the end.

The carpet is for the home! Only gets more valuable with time! A piece that I would be able to have that was beautiful and would last me a long time.  Feel the carpet! Look at it from here! Look at it from there!  If you buy carpet, I will send you Christmas card!

We established a little pile of carpets that were my favorite, of course all of them were enormous, hand dyed, hand knotted carpets that I knew long before hearing the price would be far beyond my price range- which they were and the larger carpets were removed within a blink of an eye.  Now let the haggling begin.

Haggling has to be one of my least favorite activities.  Most of the time I just wish that someone would offer me a reasonable price when traveling, I'd gladly take it over arguing over a price for extensive periods of time.  In this case, I was honestly not so keen on buying a carpet when I had been in Turkey for less than 6 hours and especially when I heard that Istanbul is one of the most expensive places to buy a Turkish rug.  I was unsure of what the fair price for the carpets would be, but regardless, I was sure that the prices were outlandish.

I was torn between truly not wanting to purchase a carpet on my first day in Turkey (holy crap, how will I survive the next two weeks if I get suckered in this easily?) and being totally completely buttered up by Sahin and pampered by cups on cups of apple tea (elma cay) and fingers deep in a vegetarian casserole he had brought for me from his family owned restaurant.

For anyone that has known me for any period of time, I think the fact that I am a major sucker shines through.  I may have resisted officially purchasing the carpet that time, but I did agree upon turning in a $100 deposit on it with a written agreement that I could have my $100 deposit on my return at the end of our two week trip if I no longer wanted the carpet.  I think even at that point 75% of myself knew that I would never come back for that deposit after the end of two weeks, but I was truly at the mercy of the tea.

Sahin seemed to be pleased enough with this agreement and we again were whisked off to the top of a rooftop bar where white wine was ordered, and despite the 90 degree F heat during the day, the air was chilled and breezy as we watched the sunset over the Bosphorous and creating dramatic silhoettes of Hagia Sofia and the many mosques dotting the hillside.

Next we were whisked off to a new section of town with his friend and his cousin.  To be honest, I have no idea where we were but it vaguely reminded me of Chelsea in New York.  Narrow cobblestone alleyways with restaurants and bars open to the street, while people and music overflowed making it difficult to make our way through the street.  I had been promised a night of jazz music by the Sahin, what I got was an all male Turkish band playing some Turkish music but mostly covers of American music that ranged from U2 to Adele.  I had my first and only drink of raki, the traditional Turkish alcohol.  It was infused with anise and tasted like dark licorice despite its white smokey look, the first taste was interesting the second disgusting and I next opted for what became my official drink of Turkey, Efes beer.  Named for the city of Ephesus, refreshing, always cold, and tasted like Miller Highlife (champagne of beers).  We ate mussels bought from a street vender, served cold on a paper plate with lemon and as more Efes' were emptied, danced, sang along and I was crowned with ridiculous light up Minnie Mouse ears.

I liked that bar just fine but was somehow convinced to try another, without realizing it would entail another cab ride.  Getting into a cab with three strange men in a foreign country where you don't speak the language on the very first night is generally frowned upon.  In general, when traveling on my own I am the most boring least daring person ever, but give me a travel buddy and I will make poor decisions left and right until the other member of the party throws in the towel.  Together the two of us agreed that we would take the cab, but ditch the guys at the next place and head back to out ghetto-fab Turkish guesthouse to call it a night.

My travel buddy tried to help box me into the cab in a way so that Sahin could not sit next to me, but instead he went around to the other side of the cab and squeezed in next to me.  I kept looking at my travel buddy who had gotten stuck next to Sahin's cousin who was fairly mild mannered, but had also been drinking.  The cab ride carried us along a highway outside the main area of the city and in the opposite direction as old town.  Again I glanced at my friend and saw Sahin's cousin try to hold her hand as moments later we pulled up to another club in a somewhat more residential area.

Get out! my travel buddy yelled, we are staying here, you are getting out of the cab, we are going BACK.  Sahin who had been quite the sweet talker to this point, attempted to get back in to escort us back the way we came but was essentially booted out of the cab.

YOU are staying HERE.

The hand had been held, the line crossed.  It was the end of party time.

Thankfully Sahin told the cab driver how to get back to his carpet shop as the cab driver only spoke Turkish and despite months of listening to my Pimsleur's Learning Turkish CDs on my three hour drives to visit my boyfriend, my Turkish was still sub par, to put it mildly.

I think it was 3 or 4 am by the time we got back to our guesthouse, with bright red glossy bed covers and beige wallpaper that must have been put up by someone either blind or missing a few fingers, possibly both.  Although I set my alarm for 8am, I rolled over in bed at 1pm only to be informed that I had promptly turned off my alarm in my sleep and went back to bed as it awoke my travel buddy and left her staring at the ceiling for hours before I allowed myself to wake up on my own sweet time.

We saw the rest of the main sights in old town and as the day was wearing to a close, it became clear that it was now or never if I was interested in ever getting my carpet deposit back.  Again, likely against my better judgement we went back over to the shop and of course are greeted once again at the door by Sahin.

As I explained that I simply could not afford the carpet, he was surprisingly silent, thoughtful.  He rolled it out in front of me.

I ask you something, how much you pay for this carpet? I will not be offended.

Well, $400.  That's it.  That's my carpet budget.

My carpet was taken away and again more carpet rolled out in front of me.  Some of them antique, all of them smaller than the one I had chosen, then I laid eyes on MY carpet.  After some haggling we agreed on a price.  I got my hand dyed hand knotted Turkish carpet that I would have the privilage of lugging around in my travel backpack for the remaining two weeks, Sahin got to keep his deposit plus some, and best of all, in four months I will get my promised Christmas card from the rug shop in Istanbul signed, Sahin.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Reservation Rescue

About a month ago, I was very excited to hear that a friend of mine, whom I had met at Officer Basic Course in Gaithersberg, MD was going to apply for the pharmacy residency position at my hospital and needed a place to stay.  I have always admired the art of being a good host, and jumped on the opportunity.

It was the end of January in the southwest, and while Gallup had clear skies, she told me that it had been snowing out in Kayenta, AZ where she was working.  At around 8:45 p.m. she texted me that she would be arriving in Gallup in an hour and a half.

No worries, but I'll probably be going to bed shortly after you arrive.  Work at 6:45 am... ugh... I'm not THAT much of a morning person...

Only about a half hour later, her name popped up on my phone.  I answered and she was crying on the other line.  Her car had started spinning out of control, hit a rock, and rolled over.

Are you ok?

Physically yes, mentally... very shaken up

Is anyone with you?

She had the "good luck" to get into an accident near someone's home on the reservation.  They helped her out, gave her blankets, and called the Navajo police.  The Navajo people live spread out from each other across the reservation.  When driving across, you'll see houses here and there but for the most part, the reservation looks vast and empty.

Where are you and do you need me to come get you?

I'm on Indian Route 12 at mile marker 80

... O Jesus Christ

I'll wait for the Navajo cops, then call you.

Alright.  I started going through my head what I needed to do... ok tell someone I'm leaving, bring water, food, a sleeping bag, warm clothes...

Sure enough 15 minutes later she said that she would need a ride into Gallup.  How else would she get here?  Her car was clearly not drivable.  I threw my stuff in the car and set off.  In retrospect, I'm really thankful that I did bring supplies and that I texted my coworker what was going on.  She offered me to switch for her 10am shift, but I was sure I would be back in time.  Tired, but back.

As soon as I passed into Arizona, it started snowing.  There was very little snow sticking to the ground, but it made me uneasy and decreased visibility.  There were some other drivers on the road, the majority of which having only one working headlight so as I drove through the night I kept seeing lone headlights approaching, pretty ridiculous as I couldn't tell exactly where the car would be.

After missing a turn (no street signs) I found Indian Route 12 and tried to pay close attention to the mile markers, which would be my only indication of how close I was to finding my friend.  Naturally, all of them were graffitied and with the snow, were damn near impossible to read.  I finally was able to make out mile marker 50 and decided to text my friend.

No cell service.  Naturally, this is the reservation, what was I expecting? I had texted her when I left my house, but aside from that, she had no idea where I was.  Fantastic.

I kept glancing down at my phone but service not found.

At about mile marker 60, I came over a small hill, I was going at 30-40 miles per hour which had been fine for most of the trip, but on the other side of the hill, there was suddenly a couple inches of snow on the ground.  As I came down the hill I could feel my little Hyundai accent, Regina, slipping from side to side.  90 degrees to the left, then 90 degrees to the right, and so on.  It was obvious that I was spinning more and more out of control, I finally turned the wheel in the the turn, spun around a few times and landed neatly just off the road.

After my futile efforts of trying to drive out of the ditch, then push Regina out, my first thought was that the night pharmacist would kill me when I didn't show up in the morning, then of course of sting of thoughts on what I could have done better... text my friend sooner, bring a friend with me, not have been hasty in setting out in this weather when I know for a damn fact that I can't drive in snow... I can barely drive under optimal driving conditions so knew this would be a disaster from the start.

Yet I also knew that I had had to try.  What was I supposed to do? Say good luck and hop into bed while my friend was stranded and shaken up in the middle of the reservation?

And of course, I still had no cell service.  There was no one in sight, no sign of civilization, the last houses I'd seen were just before mile marker 50 and I wasn't about to leave my car and walk back to them in the snow at 11:30 at night.  I flipped on my hazard lights and crawled into my sleeping bag.  My hope was my friend would eventually come this way with the Navajo cops when I didn't arrive.

While I am able to sleep in almost any conditions (a blessing, really), nearly everything woke me up.  At 1am, I woke up thinking I had seen headlights approaching.  At this point, Regina was completely covered in snow, I could barely make out lights in the distance.  Sure enough, I could see a truck coming over the peak moving at about 10 miles per hour.  I jumped outside and waved my hands frantically.  As they approached, they almost seemed to stop, then kept going.  I kept waiting for them to stop and when they didn't, I chased after the car;

You assholes ASSHOLES!!! I yelled

but they didn't seem to care, just kept driving away at about 10 miles an hour with a crazy white girl screaming and running behind their truck.

The good thing about this situation was 1. I realized that it had stopped snowing and 2. I found cell services.  A string of worried texts came through from my friend who knew it shouldn't have taken me that long to get to her.  I gave her my location, and she immediately left to come save me with the Navajo cops.  I also texted my coworker and asked... actually... on second thought, can I switch you for that 10 am shift?  In retrospect it was a bit of an asshole move on my part to be texting anyone at 1 am on a work night, but she replied and agreed right away.

The Navajo cops helped pull my car out of the ditch, my friend and I jumped in and set off towards home.  We didn't make it back until 4:30 am, but we made it back.  Neither of us were hurt.  At the end of the day, I have to say, things could have gone better, things could have gone worse.  A reminder of how quickly you can be humbled before nature.  Without the protection of my car, my sleeping bag, and my water I would have been helpless on the reservation in temperatures dropping well below freezing.  While I will always feel a connection to all of the Public Health Service officers who went through Officer Basic Course with me, this friend and I will always share the bond of having survived the blizzard.  The extraordinary is not so distant from the ordinary.

At the end of the day, I live for this shit.

Friday, January 11, 2013

El Mirador

Now that I am a responsible working adult my trips have been cut dramatically short.  I got back a week ago from a 10 day Guatemalan adventure.  I'll take what I can get when it comes to vacation, but it still felt painfully short #whitegirlproblems

I've taken so little time to reflect on ? anything this past year, but if 2012 was the year of ambition, I hereby declare 2013 to be the year of adventure.  By the end of a chaotic and accomplished year, I still had (have) no idea what I'm doing with my life as I plunged forward.  I was certain that my only salvation from myself would be adventure tourism in Latin America.  Guatemala was chosen by flight price, and I proceeded to review my options.  I consulted a friend who had worked at a hostel in Livingston, Guatemala for 8 months, and he mentioned El Mirador.

The Mayan empire preceeded that of the Incas or Aztecs.  The height of their civilization had fallen long before the arrival of the Spanish, hypothesized to be secondary to drought, but Mayan culture is still very much alive in many central American countries, like Guatemala.  El Mirador is not the best known Mayan site in Guatemala, that title goes to Tikal, yet it is the location of the tallest known Mayan pyramid, La Danta.

My rough guide stated that per any year, the number of archaeologists visiting the site far outnumbers that of tourists, although per my guide on the hike, El Mirador hosted 300-400 travelers for the 13th Baktun, or the "Mayan end of the world" on December 21, 2012, a great exception to the usual numbers.  There are no roads to El Mirador, it must be done on foot or by helicopter.  Mel Gibson opted for the latter during the shooting of Apocalypto, which was shot on top of La Danta.  I make an active commitment to avoid Mel Gibson films, but I'm a little curious about it after completion of the hike.  Our guide, Juan Carlos, found it very entertaining that the movie portrayed Mayan human sacrifices on top of the pyramids when there is no evidence that this was conducted at the top of the pyramid at any of the sites.  The Mayans did not begin the practice of human sacrifice until the later years of the empire, it was not discussed by our guide in the context of El Mirador.  As El Mirador was one of the earlier Mayan sites, it may not have played a major part in that society.

I was sold.  El Mirador or bust.  I arrived in Flores on my 3rd day and got a spot on a hike with 11 other travelers to El Mirador.

This tour was pretty "cushie" for a five day backpacking trip.  I was told the only think that I needed to bring was extra clothing, "las mulas" the mules would carry all of the food, tents and ended up carrying all of our extra stuff as well.  By the time we reached each camping site, the food had already been prepared and the tents ready.

The first day we hiked 12 km (7 miles) and reached Tintal.  The jungles of Mayan lands are covered in small uncovered ruins.  Tintal was essentially a suburb of El Mirador.  Although much smaller, the people of Tintal had built their own pyramids and the city was surrounded by a moat which served primarily as water storage.  By the time we reached Tintal, we had already been walking on a path of limestone, now overgrown with jungle, that had been built by the Mayans thousands of years ago.  The path went all the way to El Mirador, the parts that were still recognizable as an ancient highway looked to be about 10 meters in width though I believe that our guide, Juan Carlos, said (in Spanish) that it was up to 30 meters across.  The Mayans did not use domesticated animals, so the "highway" was exclusively for foot traffic.  This region of Peten is now densely covered with jungle

The second day I believe was a 26 km (16 miles... I have decided to add a list of conversion factors to my list of travel essentials) arriving on December 31st.  My diverse group included 2 Guatemalan guides, 3 Germans, 2 Israelis, 1 Norwegian, 2 Brits, 1 member from Japan, 1 member from Hong Kong, 1 from the Netherlands, and the token American (myself).  None of us actually made it to midnight that night, but we spent the day celebrating New Years for every country represented by each of us in the group, starting with Japan at 10am.  I watched the sunset on December 31, 2012 from the top of El Tigre, the second highest pyramid in El Mirador.

Each of the buildings in El Mirador was named for an animal: la danta, el tigre, el jaguar are the largest constructions.  "La Danta" is a daunting title, but directly translates to "the tapir" which was the largest- and oddest looking- animal that the Spanish could think of.

We sat around the table in candlelight, high on life and Jesus as the Brits were the only ones with enough sense to bring rum.  Naturally we came up with the brilliant idea of going back into the jungle to watch the stars from on top of El Tigre.  Our group member from the Netherlands was working on his PhD in physics and would explain to us the workings of the universe from pyramid top.

Yeah! We're the adventurous and daring group! Coolest group of people to EVER visit El Mirador.

Juan Carlos was waiting for us at the trail head.

I'm sorry, you can't go tonight.

He explained that it was particularly an issue this night because some of the people who were in charge of the El Mirador national park were also camping there this night.  We can go to see the sunrise tomorrow he offered in exchange.

I have a sneaking feeling that we are more predictable than we believe...

La Danta was incredible.  It was built on top of 2 platforms built during different time periods.  The first platform was large enough to fit multiple football fields.  After climbing the steps to the top, it was unrecognizable as a man-made platform.  Jungle had completely taken over and we hiked onward to reach the next set of steps.  The next platform was taller, but significantly smaller in area.  On top of this was La Danta which was adjacent to several smaller pyramids.

Each of the platforms was built during different time periods.  It is incredible to think that each of the stones was unearthed and carried to this location to build it to what it is today.  The total construction spanned a few hundred years, a total of 15 million days of labor and built up to a height of 78 meters.  The United States as a nation is just past its 200th anniversary, El Mirador existed starting in 500 BC and fell around 150 AD - existing three times as long as the United States has and La Danta alone took longer to build that my country has been in existence.    What is most difficult for me to imagine regarding its construction, it the continued dedication of the society to place resources into its construction, and the agreement that its construction was justified, over hundreds of years.

El Mirador was the most powerful Mayan site of its time, reaching the height of its civilization by 100 BC.  Tikal was just emerging as a society by 1 AD.  Even after El Mirador was past its prime, it was still far more powerful than Tikal.  The people of Tikal made alliances with surrounding Mayan societies and led a successful attack on El Mirador.  Per Juan Carlos, after that many people fled El Mirador and eventually, it was abandoned.

We stared at this structure, the tallest Mayan pyramid built 2000 years ago.  Archaeologists have uncovered parts of El Mirador enough to discover their hidden secrets, but still leaving it looking quite raw.  La Danta, this intimidating pile of limestone is now covered in trees and appearing as a small hill in the depths of the jungle.  This area of Peten was once heavily populated, likely heavily deforested to made way for homes, markets, and farm land given time has returned to jungle.

We spent January 1st in the midst of what once was the greatest civilization in central America and watching the clouds pass by.  I'm not really sure what I want to accomplish with my life, but for now, I can be ok with the way things are take things day by day.