Thursday, July 31, 2008

Arrival in Kuwait

"Have you got your passports?", the taxi driver asked Tom and me at 3am this morning as we left for Heathrow. "You'd be surprised how many people leave for the airport without them!". Even in my tired state, I wondered how it would be possible to do such a thing. Nevertheless, I took my passport out and stared at it to make sure it was there.

An hour later, at the KLM check-in queue, I reached for my passport again. It wasn't there. After several panicky phone calls, it turned out it was on its way to Stansted airport, on the back seat of the taxi. Luckily it was retrieved in time and we touched down in Kuwait this afternoon. The plane was half full of expatriates and we queued for ages at passport control. Just behind us was a group of very large American soldiers. One was talking about his recent tour in Afghanistan.

Tom and I shared a car to our hotel with an Arab man who wore white robes and a diamond-encrusted watch. We both greeted each other formally when we got in the car. Tom and I chatted a bit on the way to the hotel, but we never spoke to the man and he never spoke to us. When the car pulled up at the hotel he seemed in a hurry to get out, but then hesitated a bit, raised his hand and said goodbye quietly.

Outside on the street, even at 9pm, it is too hot to stay outside for long. It is so hot that there seem to be no public spaces outside in the city. Everything is indoors. Street life happens in air conditioned malls, where a cup of coffee costs £4 and where men and women sit around in separate groups.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Some Friendly Advice

The metal detector bleeped loudly as I tried to pass through to the departure lounge to leave Istanbul. An armed policeman stepped forward and began to frisk me. Tensions were high after the terrorist attack on the American Consulate two weeks before.

After a few seconds he stopped and a serious look came over his face:
-"You have kepek", he said.
-"Oh!" I said, thinking he meant I had left some coins in my back pocket.
-"You know what it is, kepek?".
-"Dandruff", he said, gesturing to my shoulder. "Don't worry - I have the same problem. You need shampoo."
-"Thank you very much. Maybe I just need to wear a white shirt."
-"Yes, that is also good", he said, smiling. "What football team do you support?"
-"I support Besiktas".
-"Turkey did very well in the Euro cup. I thought you were going to win at one point".
-"Turkey is not so good. England is good."
-"No, we're rubbish".

The conversation passed to less serious matters: how long did you stay in Istanbul? Was it just a holiday? How much was your hotel? Have you got brothers and sisters? What is your job? Are you travelling alone? Have you been to Izmir? Do you like beer? How much is a visa to Turkey? How much does a policeman get paid in England?

Ahmet, it turned out, had been a policeman for one year. Before that, he had been a physics teacher. He had studied in Moscow for four years and Azerbaijan for one year:
-"What was Azerbaijan like?"
-"Baku is a rich city. Lots of oil - English and American engineers. It's expensive - 5 dollars to get into the disco at the Hyatt Regency. But nice girls."

He had found teaching difficult: young people were hard to teach. They would smoke and shout in class:
-"I would say 'be quiet' but they wouldn't".
-"It's the same problem everywhere".
-"Now I am a policeman. We make 1300 US dollars a month" - he typed out the figure on his mobile phone to make sure I understood."We work 12 hours, then have 24 hours off. Then we come on for the night shift."
-"It's difficult".
-"It's not difficult - telling people to take out their cameras and phones and put them on the X-ray machine...I want to study to be a narcotics policeman - more action. Or maybe go to the US or England to work in the Consulate there."
-"What's your name?"
-"Ahmet. What's yours?"
-"Can I have your MSN messenger address?"
-"I don't have one. I use hotmail, and skype." I gave him my address.

The last passengers were passing through now, and the plane was starting to board:
-"Do you want some tea?"
-"Thanks, but my flight is leaving. Next time."
-"Yes, next time", he said, and smiled.

Friday, July 25, 2008

"Life Here is Like a Cartoon"

Conversation in a hotel (Georgia), 10 days ago.

-"Is it safe here?"
-"I will explain everything. People here are tense, very tense. They are wondering, where is my next piece of bread going to come from. Some of them - my God! - they use the streets as a toilet. They are like animals. The other day I was walking along the street and I saw a man with his trousers down. My God!"
-"So people don't have much money?"
-"Listen. You need money here to get money. You cannot get money or a good business unless you already have money. You understand? I will probably be in trouble for saying this... Everything here depends on money, even your personal relationships."
-"Is it easy to find a job?"
-"Many people here don't want to work. They are ashamed to work. They want quick, easy money. My parents are doctors. But there is no middle class any more. There are the rich, and the poor. The people who think they are middle class are just the poor."
-"But the centre of this town is reasonably safe?"
-"Yes, it is ok. It is not clean, but it is ok. You can never predict life here though. It is strange, I tell you, a very strange time. Life here is like a cartoon. You never know what is going to happen next. I cannot take it seriously. People here want to be European, but also to hold onto their traditions. They do not understand that this is not possible."
-"People want to be European?"
-"Yes. I used to live in Europe - I lived there until one of my parents became sick and I had to come back. But I was ashamed to say I was Georgian. European people always think you are a thief as soon as you say you are Georgian. Many jobs I lost out on because of this. I thought - shall I say I am Romanian, or Turkish?"
-"It sounds difficult"
-"Yes...but I am preparing for something. I do not know what. But I will do something, something in the name of my nation. I say nation, I do not mean country. My country has so many peoples - Turks, Armenians, Russians, Azeris. But I will do something for my nation."
-"What kind of thing?"
-"I am an artist, a painter. I have my own style, like a magical world. I am a sculptor too.
-"Can I see your work?" [She shows me photographs on her mobile phone]. "Very beautiful. Maybe you will have an exhibition?"
-"Maybe. Who knows? People here pretend to care about culture. They don't really care, all they really care about it is politics. But one day, I will do something".

An Icy Reception

Conversation in a hotel (Istanbul), 2 days ago.

The receptionist is a tanned young man in his late twenties. He is stylishly dressed and wears fashionable glasses. His eyes flicker over a pretty young Italian tourist as she asks him about the city. Twice her husband, standing next to her, tries to join the conversation. His questions, unlike his wife's, are met with short, blunt answers.

I stand behind the Italian couple, waiting to check in. When they leave, the receptionist takes no notice of me. I am about to say something when another young woman walks past and he quickly engages her in conversation. Eventually I sit down next to him to book a room. It costs 10 euros (18 Turkish lira). I hand over 50 lira:

-"Give me 20. I don't have change."
-"Neither do I"
He sighs and takes some change from his colleague nearby:
-"The cost is 18 lira but I do not have 2 lira so you will have to pay 20."
-"When will the room be ready?"
He says something in Turkish to his colleague, looks at me and laughs.
-"When should I come back for the room?" I say again.
-"Maybe 1 o'clock. Maybe 2 o'clock. Do you need to sleep?"
-"So it doesn't matter".

I consider walking out and finding a different hotel, even though it is the cheapest place I have found so far. There is a club trance tune playing loudly in the room next door:
-"Do you like this music?" he asks.
-"It's okay"
-"Ha! Everyone loves it. I hate it. I hate everything. I hate Istanbul. I hate myself. But most of all, I hate you."

I wait, unsure of what to say, just looking at him. Suddenly his face seems very large face. He continues:
-"I'm sorry to say it, but I'm being honest. Do you want me to lie? Ok, I love you! But I don't. I hate you, and I hate myself. So?"

There is more challenge than pleading in his voice. He stares at me, waiting for an answer:
-"I don't know, it's difficult"
-"Yes! It's difficult"
-"Where are you from?"
-"Have you ever been anywhere else?"
-"Ankara". He laughs joylessly
-"Did you like it?"
-"No, I hated it"
-"How long have you worked here?"
-"4 months"
-"How old are you?"
-"Almost 30. How old are you?"
-"So, you are my older brother".
-"Maybe. Almost. What's your name?"

He tells me, and we shake hands, warmly, for several seconds.
-"Sorry, I was joking before".
-"Ok, fine. See you later".

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Hard Sell

İt was an easy sell. İ had spotted a small jewellery box, decorated with a tulip, in the window of a gift shop. İt would make a perfect present for my mother. Just then a smiling salesman appeared by my side. "How much for the tulip?" İ asked. "20 lira" he said, still smiling. "İ was hoping to spend about 15" İ said. "Sure, we can do that", he said. "Why not?".

Two minutes later the tulip was wrapped up inside my bag and İ was having tea in the shop. After another half an hour we had moved to a hotel and were enjoying a beer in the garden: me, and two of the three brothers who owned the shop. "This is great", İ thought to myself. "Still on holiday and already İ'm practising for my PhD research. Having beer with some real traders in İstanbul! How easy was that?"

İ started to ask them about their business. "Where do you source your goods? Where do you export them?". "Do you like Russian girls?" one of them answered. "Ehh..." İ started to finger my beer nervously. "İt's okay", he continued. "Afterwards, we'll go to my house. İ invite you. We'll have a house party. Whiskey, girls, a joint. My God! İt's the best thing! İ've got a phone number. You won't have to pay for a hotel".

"'s okay, thanks. Not really my kind of thing." An awkward silence. "You go right ahead though". "What are you going to do?" they asked. "Do you have plans for tonight?". "İ don't know, İ'll just go back to my hotel" İ said. "Listen, my friend, it's okay. İstanbul is not like other cities in Turkey. İt's a party city. People come here to have fun. You're away from your wife, your girlfriend. Russian girls, oh my God, so beautiful. You'll regret it if you don't, believe me. And the pound is so strong at the moment.."

"No, thank you. My mind is made up." Silence.

İ decided it was time to bring it back to research. "So you sell both old and new kilims?". "Have you got a problem?" the younger one said, curling up the index finger on his right hand. They both laughed. "My friend, men are different from women. Women just need one man. Men like us, we need a different woman every night. Otherwise we get bored and become like robots. We fall asleep. This happened to me once, believe me."

"You do what you want", İ said. "İ'm fine with my beer." The younger trader - just a couple of years older than me - thought for a bit. "İ am sorry if this offends you", he said, "but maybe Turkish men are different, strong. We work hard all day, and we work hard all night!". They laughed again while İ gulped my beer and began to feel a bit drunk.

Another silence. Then İ made one last effort. "So how much of your profit comes from carpets, in any one year?". "My friend, there is nothing but death. So we should enjoy now. İt is the same when İ sell a carpet or even something very small, it doesn't matter. İ do it for my pleasure and for your pleasure. İt must benefit us both. Our government doesn't care for us. We need to look after ourselves. Be strong, make money, take your pleasure."

Just then the call to prayer rises up from a nearby mosque. "İt is such a beautiful sound", he says.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

About a Rat

Last night as İ lay in my hotel room watching a concert of traditional Turkish music on the television, a rat walked in to watch it with me. İt was a hot night, and İ had left the door and window open, hoping to catch a breeze. There is a light on the landing that turns on whenever someone walks past. As İ was wearing nothing but my boxer shorts, my first thought was that İ should cover myself up when the light turned on. İ sat up to see who was in the doorway, and it was then that İ saw my furry friend scurrying in to join me.

The little creature, who quickly decided it was safest to enjoy the concert from underneath my bed, triggered a bout of panic and uncertainty that was quickly to spread through the hotel. İ sat bolt upright on my bed pondering a number of questions. Could İ just ignore it? What is the Turkish for "rat"? Would it dare climb into bed with me? Would it go away if İ turned the music off? Finally: how can İ reach my clothes without touching the floor?

Two minutes later İ was at the front desk trying to explain the situation to the receptionist. İ knew İ had got through when a look of shocked recognition passed across his face and he said uneasily: "what do you want me to do about it?" "İ don't know", İ said, "but a rat is not the same thing as a mouse". For some reason that seemed conclusive, and he reached for the telephone. As İ wondered if he could possibly be calling İstanbul pest control at 10pm, the boss appeared. Here was not a man to be trifled with. Tall and overbearing, he had seemed less and less friendly ever since İ took the room, sometimes even ignoring me when İ said hello. And here İ was semi-clothed in his hotel trying to mimic the movements of a rat.

İt was quickly decided that İ would have a different room; meanwhile the receptionist was sent to my old room with what looked like a broomstick. Then the evening became a lot less pleasant. The Kazakh woman who cleans my room was summoned and shouted at for leaving the balcony door open. İ pointed out that the rat came from the landing, not the so-called balcony, which was in any case just an optimistic name for a fire escape ladder. Then she was shouted at for leaving food around the hotel, and not cleaning the kitchen properly.

İ felt uneasy and guilty and then remembered how, the day before when she had changed a lightbulb in my room, her hands had been shaking so much that she had dropped the bulb and it shattered on the floor. She had seemed so unsettled and had apologised so incessantly that İ offered her a Turkish delight, which unfortunately she mistook for rubbish and put in the bin. When İ offered her another one, she smiled and opened her mouth. Not knowing what else to do, İ put it in. Then she had heard the boss shouting again and rushed quickly away.

Now the shouting continued as İ cleared my room. İ picked up my belongings, thinking about the rat and the boss and feeling responsible for his bullying. Another woman who cleans the hotel stood with me and asked where İ was from. "From England". "İ am from Turkmenistan", she said. "What is it like there?" İ asked. "Very beautiful", she said, then paused as if wanting me to understand something different or expecting me to disagree with her. "Of course there is no money and no work", she said. "That is why we come here".

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Smartening Up

Middle class Turks must be among the least scruffy people on earth. This morning, in Istanbul, I came a step closer to joining their ranks by buying some new trousers. This took me somewhat off the tourist track to an alleyway outside the old Istanbul market. I don't know why, but there is a certain style among middle aged Istanbul men that has caught my imagination: polished shoes, dark cotton trousers, and multi-coloured button-collar T-shirts. For some reason I can see this style working for me.

In the middle of the crowded alleyway there was a stall that specialised in this look. It was oddly empty of any customers. I started leafing through the trousers and the stall-keeper asked my waist size. When I said 34 he looked doubtful and reached for his tape measure. He decided it was in fact 46, and laid out an array of slightly different coloured options. I eventually chose two - dark grey and dark blue - that cost about 8 pounds each. Trousers here are only measured by the waist: the legs are always unhemmed, so you need to take them to a tailor to have them finished.

With no idea where to find a tailor, I asked the stall-keeper to have them measured and finished for me. He was a bit a reluctant but I paid him another 2 pounds and he took me off through the crowds to a nearby street, into an office building and up two flights of stairs. Cigarette stubs lined the marble floor. We walked along a corridor, passed a barbers shop, and went into the tailors' shop. In contrast to the clothes market outside, here there was an atmosphere of industry and calm. The tailors worked in two small adjoining rooms, each with four sewing machines of different sizes, an ironing press, and fans to keep the place cool. There was an Islamic calendar on the wall of each room. The shelves were piled with rolls of material and thread, old newspapers, and cardboard shapes to cut around made out of large Marlboro boxes.

The three tailors were mustachioed men in their forties wearing dark trousers of the kind I'd just bought. They also wore neatly pressed light blue short-sleeved shirts. I felt like I was among friends. They were all quietly at work, two at machines and one cutting material. There was also a bored looking girl sitting at the back of the room. She was about 16, wore a long denim skirt, long sleeved blouse, and no veil. As I continued to sweat uncomfortably from the heat outside, she looked at me and frowned slightly. When one of the tailors saw the trousers I had bought, he took one look at me and shook his head. Reaching for his tape measure he measured my waist and said I needed a 42. The stall-keeper looked sheepish and we returned to his stall.

This time I returned to the tailors' shop alone, having chosen some new trousers and retrieved my two pounds from the stall-keeper. While the tailor got to work, I sat down in the adjoining room, across the table from the girl who was still eyeing me suspiciously. She was eating her lunch - a kebab sandwich and a bottle of pepsi - with a great deal of care, as if she didn't want to drop anything. At one stage she half filled her cup from the pepsi bottle, hesitated a second, then poured in another centimetre or so.

After five minutes the trousers were ready, and I tried to hand over the 2 pounds to the moustachioed tailor. Twice he adamantly refused to take it, insisting that he would take the money from the stall-keeper. I felt a wave a pleasure that I was dealing with someone so obviously trustworthy. It meant I could relax. When I explained in broken Turkish that I had already taken the money from the stall-keeper myself in order to pay him, a smile of understanding crossed his face and he took the money.

Getting the Brush Off

To complete the middle-aged and middle-class look, I have bought a multi-coloured button-up T-shirt (2 pounds) and had my very scruffy shoes polished.

Probably like a lot of tourists I feel uncomfortable having my shoes polished by someone in public. Last night, though, I was walking along the Galata bridge when a shoeshine man walked past me with his box full of brushes and polish. One of the brushes fell off his box when he was just a few paces in front of me. I picked it up and called out to him. He bowed, immediately thanked me in English and the next thing I knew he was sitting down at the side of the pavement polishing my shoes.

Oddly, the same thing happened this morning. I was walking near the Topkapi Palace when a shoeshine man overtook me and was only a few paces in front when a brush fell off his box. I was about to pick it up for him, and was bent halfway down when I smiled and decided to leave it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Georgian Dance

On our last nıght in Tbilisi we went to a local restaurant in Marjanishvili. At around 10pm we stepped into an underground brick cavern that could once have been a warehouse. The place was empty apart from an enormous man in his 50s, sleeping in one corner, and four young Georgians in another. As we walked past the bar İ realised with terror that the dining area resembled a dance floor.

As we tucked into dumplings and beer, two young Georgian men jumped up from their table and confirmed my fears. As they paced up and down the room, the music grew louder - a folksong with a heavy electric beat. Facing each other and swinging their arms, the two men started what looked like a vigorous, symmetrical exercise routine. İt became more and more energetic, turning into something like an elegant and elaborate fencing duel.

Their two women stood up, and the men danced round them, their movements suddenly more fluid. By comparison. the women looked half-hearted. İt wasn't their show and no-one was paying them much attention. The women were ostensibly the reason for the peacockish display but the men's energy made them slightly invisible. İt was hard to tell if each man was limbering up to fight the other or just trying to impress him.

The speed and elegance of their movements was both aggressive and beautiful, but the real drama was in their faces. They held each others' eyes with a fixed theatrical expression that was somewhere between a smile and a grimace. Only their lips moved, slowly mouthing silent words of joy, or terror, or love, or pain.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Middle of the Road

The highway from the Georgian capital to the Black Sea resort of Batumi is patterned by skid marks, many of which leave the road. Luckily, we didn't add to them this morning. I arrived at the bus station early and got a seat on a Ford Transit van. The best seats are at the front, by the driver. Despite my best efforts I wasn't able to persuade the bus manager to let me sit there, even though I was the first passenger to arrive. When I asked why, he made a strange sign with his left forearm. I pondered this for a while, from the bowels of the vehicle. After half an hour the bus had almost filled up and the engine was revving to go. Suddenly an elegant, tanned, 20-something blonde woman appeared out of nowhere and slipped into the seat by the driver. I am starting to know my place in this country.

The Lonely Planet guidebook says that driving standards are poor in Georgia; another way to look at it is that the drivers are unusually skilled at coping with everyone else on the road. The most important trick is knowing how to overtake. At 70 miles an hour our driver was often barely more than a metre behind the lorry in front, edging out looking for an opportunity. The second most important trick is knowing how to avoid cars overtaking from the opposite direction. Nominally, lanes are painted on the road and Georgians drive on the right, but in reality everything is up for negotiation. The third most important trick is being able to anticipate the movements of the many cows and dogs who live and socialise on the motorway.

Batumi is a humid container port on the Black Sea. There are as many gambling dens in the city centre as there are Starbucks back home. Some are full of one-armed bandits but are usually empty of customers; others are full of middle-aged men watching and betting on football matches. There are lots of dubious looking poker clubs - I haven't yet dared to step inside, although there is one right opposite this internet cafe...

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Tbilisi Underground

I feel like I am starting to understand this travelling thing. When I arrived a week ago I spent my time looking for cafe lattes and air conditioned hotel rooms. Now I am staying at hostels, cleaning my socks with bars of soap, sharing food, medication, beer and information with other foreigners. It is all very sociable, and my stamina for sweaty buses is improving too.

The volume of snoring last night in the dormitory was really impressive. In the darkness someone tried to stop the snorer by clicking their fingers loudly three times. It was a strange attempt to communicate with someone who was asleep without waking them up. Oddly, it worked for a bit. In the end I fell asleep, maybe even snored a bit too.

This morning I am making a brave effort to learn the Georgian alphabet. The cheapest way to do this is to hang about in the Tbilisi underground, where all the station names are written in both Georgian and English, so you can work out what each of the letters is. Standing on a platform with my notebook, I sketched the strange letters and mouthed them repeatedly to myself as one train after another went past. Later, above ground, I spotted some new letters on a police car, and spent a few minutes staring at them before realising the policemen standing nearby were also staring at me.

The women seem to do most of the service work in this city - in hotels, hostels, offices, train stations, cafes, shops, roadside stalls - the people I've spoken to are by and large women. Men work on building sites, drive taxis and buses, guard buildings and sweep the streets. They also sit around in cafes and park benches, like me. There are lots of people begging in subways underneath roads and at the larger metro stations - both men and women.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Mad Dogs...

Not quite in Syria yet - on holiday in Georgia. Went walking in the Caucuses yesterday where I managed to get sunstroke and a nasty bout of dehydration on my way down the mountain. By the time I got back to the village, I was wandering around the streets dazed and unable to find the hostel. I had wrapped my shirt around my heat turban-style and was greeted by cries of allahu akbar by the local (Christian) village boys. Luckily I eventually stumbled on the hostel and was fed dioralyte and salty tea by the other (hardier) travellers.
Now I am in Tbilisi - it has a pretty cobbled town centre, but a lot of the old houses have been damaged by an earthquake. Many are cracked right down the middle, which would make them uninhabitable back home, but here people put bright flowers in the window sills and keep on living in them. They don't have the money to repair or rebuild them, but don't have the heart to give up and escape to the even more destitute suburbs either.