Saturday, March 29, 2008

An Authentic Turkish Experience

Early in life, I always pictured places in my mind’s eye by the images I gathered from books; especially art history books. New York I associated with the Empire state building, Paris, with the Eiffel tower, and London with the Monarchy, and Westminster Abby. Later, in Art College, I added other associations, such as Barcelona and the eccentric, grand architecture of Antonio Gaudi, and Istanbul with the Hagia Sophia.

THE DREAM has given me a flat in Istanbul that looks across the busy Marmara Sea waterway to a distant hill, where the domes and spires of the Hagia Sophia stand as they have for 1000 years. Istanbul is one of the world’s largest cities, about the same in population as all of Greece, and sits between the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea. It has been the seat of empires and was once called Constantinople, where the Roman Emperor Constantine established the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It has served as the capital city of the Roman Empire (330-395), the Byzantine Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453), the Latin Empire (1204-1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922). It is the only city in the world to straddle two continents: Asia and Europe.
I find the people more taciturn than in Egypt, and for the most part, more upwardly mobile. Nonetheless, I’ve made friends in only a week. Bahri, a father of two young daughters took me along to visit a nearby Turkish bath house. We arrived in the morning, and once inside were greeted in a small courtyard. We took off our shoes and put on sandals, then went upstairs into tiny private rooms to undress. Wrapped in a towel, we went down to a large room with a flat marble slab in the middle and domed ceiling. Portholes letting streams of light inside punctuated the dome. Several men were already lounging when we went into a dry sauna, where we worked into a sweat. Bahri had only come for the sweat and bath, but I got the full treatment. A husky man took me aside and had me sit next to basin of running water where he proceeded to rinse me. Putting on a mit with mildly abrasive palm, he rubbed vigorously over my entire body. After a few minutes, rolls of dead skin were gathering. Evidently, he was quite satisfied with his efforts, since he made sure I saw the amazing amount of skin that was coming off. He rinsed me again, brusquely massaging as he went, with a surprising smack in the middle of my back that could be heard out in the street. Under the dome, I lay on the slab, and was thoroughly soaped from head to foot, getting massaged at the same time. A rinse, and one more soaping next to a basin, then rinse with another whack on the back before I was wrapped from head to knee in towels and headed to my little cubicle to lie down and rest on the bed. Later, meeting Bahri, and striding into the clear light and beautiful spring weather, I felt like a new man . . . with an authentic Turkish experience.

Read interesting facts about Turkey.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Fragrant Breezes

If sometimes the streets of the world are hell, I have found heaven on a mountain in Haifa, Israel. Being on the grounds of the Bahá’í world center is about as close to paradise as I am going to feel in a physical place. Bahá’í’s are expected to visit on pilgrimage at least once during their lifetime. This is my second visit and it is more beautiful than ever. Both the Bahá’í’ prophets, Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb are buried in this area, and the seat of the Bahá’í’ world governing body, called the Universal House of Justice is here. Each day I have been rejuvenated and uplifted, as if my spirit drinks from heavenly streams and my feet do not touch the ground. People from all over the world are gathered under one tent, as one family. Just looking at the diverse humanity is a feast for the eyes.
Bahá’u’lláh gave Bahá’í’s their own calendar, with March 21 marked as the beginning of each new year. This year, the full moon is in conjunction with the spring equinox. Refreshing and fragrant breezes have blown over me, and I feel revitalized to carry forth my trek into Turkey, and Istanbul.

From the writings of Bahá’u’lláh:
"The world is but one country, and mankind its citizens."
"Let not a man glory in that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind."
"Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch."


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Travel In An Unfolding Dream

To travel in an unfolding dream is to live every moment within mystery. Egypt is mysterious and inscrutable as the hieroglyphics inscribed in the stone walls of its temples and buried for millennia under desert sand. I hear Arabic, see it written, and don’t understand, yet feel connected by THE DREAM. As often happens when Egyptians on the street see me, someone says “hello, welcome,” and then the solitude of my travel is broken and although for the most part, we cannot understand one another, a bridge is established and it is as if an oasis opens before me. Since my arrival, many Egyptians from all walks of life have spoken this word to me and smiled. With a few, I have become friends, and then the bond is great and they share everything.
Alexandria is the nations second largest city, and I have been here 1 week. In ancient times, it was renowned as a center of learning and housed the world’s largest library. It eventually fell into decline and the library vanished, but recently through international efforts, a gleaming, ultra modern library, called Bibliotheca Alexandria, has opened with over 8 million volumes. It is almost an anomaly in this country of crumbling and unfinished buildings, with donkey carts sharing the streets with taxis.
Next week I will be in Haifa, Israel, and will also have many photos available from my travel thus far.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

What I Want And More

THE DREAM is giving me what I want and more. Here in Luxor, along the Nile River, where the Egyptians built vast temples and tombs 7000 years ago, I find myself amidst a family in their mud home in a little village, playing with four children, and lounging on a straw mat over the earth floor with my friend Abu. We drink tea his wife has brought and he smokes his water pipe. It is the end of the day, and the family cow is brought in from the pasture and goes right through the house into the back, next to the donkey, amidst ducks and hens. Pigeons that are raised for food flutter about, pecking crumbs from the dirt floor at our feet. There are flies from the animals, no shower or bathtub, a single toilet sunk in the earth, and a single fire pit for cooking all the food. The children, two boys and two girls, all sleep in one bed, sometimes amid hordes of flies. The woman dressed in a long robe with a scarf over her hair, keeps with the children, except to bring us a delicious meal of steaming food. I feel entirely relaxed and safe, lost in the matrix of the earth.

Abu is the captain of a felucca, a type of sailboat common on the Nile, at present, mostly used to take tourists for rides. We became friends while he was working on finishing a new coat of paint on his boat and I offered to paint the name of his youngest daughter, Amira, in English on both sides of the bow and on the cabin. In Arabic, Amira means princess. Through Abu, I have met his two closest friends; both named Ahmad, and joined for the time being their tight circle. One drives a taxi and the other hires his felucca to take tourists sailing. They are poor, barely scraping by, but as Ahmad said, “we are so close that we keep nothing from each other.”
Here is a funny thing that happened to Ahmad the sailor: Two Japanese were aboard and spoke poor English. They tried to explain their ages, thirty and thirty two, but instead one of them said, “I am dirty, and my friend is dirty too!” Ahmad replied that if they wanted to clean off in the river it would be okay.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Welcome to Egypt

The news from the Middle East has been mostly violent for many years, so I built up some trepidation about visiting. I pictured myself getting nabbed off the street and ransomed as American booty, maybe tortured for good measure. Thus far, my experience in Cairo has been just the opposite. Strangers, who do not know how to speak English, see me and smile, often saying, “welcome.” In THE DREAM, what matters is the heart, and this is the universal language. So I throw myself into the crowded streets, taking pictures as I go, jostling with the common men and women, smiling when someone eyes me in my cowboy hat, grins, waves and says "welcome!”
Women are often covered from head to foot in flowing robes. Younger woman too, have scarfs over their heads. Females do not show flesh. Men sometimes wear loose fitting gowns. Middle-aged and older men often have permanently bruised foreheads. The discoloration is from prostrating so often in prayer. At regular intervals during the day and early evening, chanters from mosques send calls to prayer over loudspeakers into the street. As one prayer subsides, others farther away can be heard continuing the melodic drone.
I joined up with four young Canadians at our hotel and went on a tour of some important places in Cairo. The most exciting part was riding a camel to the foot of the Pyramids in Giza. At that point, our guides were two young locals; Mohammed, the leader, and his protégé Hassan, a youngster who was incredibly nimble around the camels. Mohammed kept a jovial banter in broken English, and occasionally got the camels to kneel down so we could dismount and walk around the incredible expanse surrounding the Egyptian world heritage “wonders of the world.” He was good at taking pictures and skilled using our cameras. Once, as I stood at the base of a pyramid and gazed toward the faraway Cairo skycaps, I faintly heard the call to prayer begin all across the city, drifting like an ancient wail riding upon a magic carpet across the desert sands. It all felt like another part of THE DREAM.