2010 Travel Outtakes

Among the countless stories that happen in life, especially on the road, and the many times I have been on the "road" this year, there are a few stories that inevitably don't get quite told. I thought I'd take some of my free time to tell some of those stories. At least two of them.

Trabzon Terror and Turkey's North Coast

Turkey is an interesting place, and I'd love to spend more time there. Their political situation is interesting (even if not always the most encouraging), their culture a strange blend underneath a constructed form of nationalism, and the role Ataturk (Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey who forged the nation to his desired form in the interwar period) played fascinating, especially as the current government shifts away from certain aspects of Ataturk's Turkey. Yes, I like Turkey, and hope to go back someday and either live or visit thoroughly.

That said, looking back on it nine months later, I'm not sure what I was doing in Trabzon.

Trabzon is a city on the north coast of Turkey, along the Black Sea. It is the capital of the province of Trabzon. There is a football team in Trabzon, Trabzonspor, that is generally in the top 5 of the Turkish Super Lig table every year; this year, they currently lead the table at the halfway mark. By virtue of being so far east, Trabzon, a few hours away from the Georgia border, apparently boasts a Russian-speaking minority, one I didn't come into contact with in my very brief stay. Either my guidebook or something on the internet also suggested that Trabzon might be a port involved with either human trafficking or with former Soviet women coming over on their way west; they were, apparently, derisively termed "Natashas." I didn't come into contact with this either, exactly, but I hope you'll see that this isn't a completely gratuitous pair of sentences.

Those who have talked with me over the past year, especially anyone who studied with me in Israel, would have figured out why I was actually in Trabzon, i.e. what my reason for being there was: I was going to Georgia. It was the Passover spring break, and I wanted to visit Georgia for reasons of personal and academic interest. Professionally, I had led a Model United Nations trip to Ankara, receiving a free ticket to Turkey, as it were. I put the pieces together and decided that the best way to get from Ankara to Georgia would be via Trabzon. And though I originally conceived of a plan to go to Trabzon by bus, an overnight deal that could be nothing but miserable, I was convinced by my hosts at the MUN conference to fly there. For $45 (59 Turkish Lira), I had a one-way ticket to Trabzon, from where I would catch a bus to the Georgia border. So that's why I was in Trabzon.

I arrived on my plane and caught a bus to the center. Having been in Turkey by then for about five days, I had picked up maybe 10 words or phrases - I'm one of those jerks who loves to learn a few words and then flaunt it, as seen in my Rwanda posts. That said, I was out of my depth here - "hello" and "thank you" doesn't get you on a bus to the center easily. I found that bus and got off at more or less the right spot. "Goodbye" and "Ataturk" doesn't get you a place in a hotel. I walked around, generally heading downward, in this case north, towards the water. It was already dark, about 7:00 pm, and I was dragging around a backpack on wheels while wearing another backpack on my shoulders, and a bit of paranoia came upon me as I walked the streets. I tried to stay on well-lit streets, of which there were several, and away from alleys. Unfortunately, nice hotels are the only ones on well-lit streets, and cheap hotels are generally only in alleys in Trabzon, from what I could tell, and so after not managing to score a room at a nice place for cheap, I ducked in to a short alley and walked into the Otel Ufuk.

The Ol' Ufuk was as much a dive as could be. Two guys eventually came down to the reception desk on the second floor to greet me. After some linguistic confusion and some problems putting in my passport number correctly, they accepted my money and showed me to my room on the floor above. My bed was covered in dingy blue sheets and had a scratchy blanket that looked like it just came out of a cat's throat. The light bulb flickered above and the dresser creaked more than was worth thinking about or testing. Outside of my room, there was no toilet but just a hole to relieve oneself in. There was no shower, either, really; on the floor above mine out of the sink came a longer water tube, but I had to just stand there and wash while hoping the run-off would go down the drain appropriately. The only saving grace was a very nice painting of a soft maiden outside my room.

Now, if she was the one knocking on my door, maybe I would have been a tad more agreeable...
But whatever. I was only passing through, I'm cheap, I'm tough, I can deal with it. Not everywhere is a 1st world 5-star experience (actually, that's just what I had in Ankara for the first few nights - it's nice traveling on "business"). I put my stuff down, went out to an internet cafe and to buy some chocolate, walked along the streets as roars came from various houses with groups of people, mostly men, gathered around TVs - Trabzonspor was playing that night and would go on to a 1-0 defeat. I felt better. I had heard good things about Trabzon from my Ankara hosts, descriptions of the more colorful head coverings I would see on the women there, demands that I should go see the nearby Sumela Monastery, and so on. I was open to the experience.

Then I went to bed.

I went to sleep around 10pm, more or less. Though the mattress was hard and the blanket scratchy, I fell asleep after not too much time. I must have slept for about an hour or two without any real problems. This sleep may have lasted had I not been woken by noise coming from the "common room" a room or two down the hall. There, somebody had the TV on too loud and there was also conversation going on between two voices, one male and one female. The conversation was episodic, interjecting and overshadowing the steady buzz of TV sound at unpredictable but frequent intervals. This woke me up.

As long as I was awake, I figured I might get up and go pee. So I did. I put on my jeans and a shirt so that I wouldn't be inviting any unwanted attention. Alas.

Coming out of the bathroom, I encountered a short woman. She had her black hair pulled back tight in a pony tail. She was not slim, and not especially attractive, especially at that time of hour. She was of undetermined nationality, presumably a Turk at some point, and not Russian or former Soviet by any means.

Anyway, she said something to me. "Sorry, no Turkish," I said back in Turkish. She repeated herself and made the gesture of putting her hand over her fist. I made the gesture of shrugging my shoulders, hoping that my gesture was more universally understood than hers. She repeated the gesture and pointed at my fly, which I had left unzipped. I, still groggy and confused, continued to try to express that confusion. She repeated it one more time with a broad, salacious smile. Ahh. I was being propositioned. I said no thanks, waved my arms in a no gesture - hand going over hand, akin to a declining gesture, or how wrestlers defer choice in the second period - smiled, and went back to my room. Hey, I'm a white male who probably looks like he has money to spend on those things. It happens.

I returned to my bed, hoping to fall asleep. The TV seems louder, if anything, and the interlocutors outside are laughing more frequently, and it appeared my hopes would go as fulfilled as all my high school date requests (or college date requests). Which is to say, I wasn't falling asleep.

I can get riled up, for sure, and demand things every now and then. But for the most part, I try to be pretty easygoing and to avoid confrontation. It's not in my interest, as I see it. I try to train myself to deal with just about anything. So my natural inclination is to just suck it up and wait it out. And again, from the vantage point of nine months later, I think that still might have been the most reasonable response. I was on vacation, I had nothing important to do until I arrived in Tbilisi two days later, I had no absolute need of rest. I could have just turned on the light, pulled out War and Peace, and kept plugging away.

But, for the eternal desire to rest and turn off, I got up, put on my jeans and t-shirt again, and walked over to the TV room. There, I said please and made the universal gestures of "turn it down, mofo," (right thumb and index finger held a centimeter apart and twisting counter-clockwise as if a volume knob were between my fingers) and "I'm sleeping, come on now, this noise is too much," (pointing to my ears, tilting my head sideways to the right, placing my hands under my head as if for angelic sleep). The guy there, by the way, was one of the guys from reception. Not a great sign for the ol' Ufuk. That said, he seemed amenable.

And nothing changed. I continued to toss and turn, and to not sleep. I got out a little later to pee again and, in lieu of my other gestures, held my arms up and made a beleaguered face - yes, that's right, I pulled out the flying dolphin. My man showed a touch of sympathy and reassurance on his face, but otherwise, the results went unchanged. I stayed awake. And then came the insult atop my injured nighttime.

A banging came on my door. Fortunately, my door was locked, and so it could not be opened. Unfortunately, this did nothing about the banging, which continued. After the first couple of phrases, presumably in Turkish, my friendly Turkish woman of the night started a conversation with me in guttural Russian, which I will present to you in Russian, transliterated Russian, and then translated English:

Проститутка - Ты спишь? Ты спишь?
Уставший мужщина - Я сплю.
Несимпатичная Проститутка - Зачем?
Сердитий человек - Поздно!
Проститутка которая не знает когда перестать - Ставай, на хуй! Ставай на хуй!

Her - Tii spish? Tii spish?
Me - Ya splyu.
Her - Zachem?
Me - Pozdno!
Her - Stavai, na khui! Stavai, na khui!

Lady of ill-repute - Are you sleeping? Are you sleeping?
Embattled gentleman - I'm sleeping.
Not so nice prostitute - What for?
Angry person - It's late!
Prostitute who doesn't know when to stop - Stand up, fucker! Stand up, fucker!*

*Loose translation, as she literally said "on a cock", which can be translated in a number of ways, many of them unknown to me. If I had to guess, she knew the phrase "idi na khui", which means "go on a cock", or "go fuck yourself."

All this happened while she continued banging (on the door, I mean). After a few more knocks, she gave up and went away. Sometime after this, I gave up and turned on the light to read. I kept reading until I heard the muezzin's morning call, and shortly after that heard them leave.

So while I don't know what I was doing in Trabzon, I can reassure you that it certainly wasn't her.

*** Postscript to Trabzon:

After blundering around that morning, I found my way to the bus station. At the time, I was still keeping open the option of visiting the Sumela Monastery. Instead, when I got to the station, I got sort of railroaded into getting on the bus to Batumi (or more accurately, Sarp, the border crossing town for Turkey-Georgia). I didn't get any clear indication of how long any of these trips would take. In all likelihood, I wouldn't have been able to go to Sumela and then make it to Batumi in time to catch the overnight train to Tbilisi that would have had me there in time for an appointment I had scheduled the next day. Still, I would have liked to have made a better informed choice.

The bus trip itself was beautiful and strange. We went right along the Black Sea, the road winding in between the coast and hills to our right, not more than 50 meters from either most of the time (That morning I had dipped my toes into the water, touching for the first and only time the sea my family used to vacation to back in the old country). That part of the Turkish coastline, at least, holds that quality we often call "rugged beauty" - rocky cliffs to our right, the flat sea to our left, and houses or port towns of varying size and stature on both sides. 

About midway through the journey, those continuing to Sarp were ushered off the bus. They then escorted us into a white van, cramming us in nice and tight. I sat next to a few jovial fellows in the back row, some with gold or missing teeth, all laughing and telling jokes eagerly that I couldn't understand but laughed along with as necessary. The van took something of a local route, taking stops to drop everyone in a preferred stop, leaving me in that location I continually find myself in, a state of confusion. At last they dropped us off at the border, the crossing its own state of chaos with line cuts, vague directions of where to go, and Georgian border officials who were very happy to see my American passport.

My Long Walk in Los Angeles

As you might have read, I took a long trip around the U.S. of A. a couple months ago. The trip concluded in California with a day and a half in San Diego, a day in LA, and a few days in San Francisco. I intended to write about all this on this blog, and didn't. At this point, I don't feel like digging up too much out of my memories and observations, as I don't think they were that unique, for the most part. I liked San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles were laid out weird and I didn't have enough time to grasp them, people are different, etc. Any East Coaster going out West can tell you these things. Instead, allow me a couple quick anecdotes I compiled and then a story about an LA feat that I think with reasonable confidence that only I am stupid enough to undertake. In many ways, this feat was a microcosm of my greater U.S. trip as a whole.

- First anecdote comes from my train ride from San Diego to Los Angeles. This was, as mentioned, my only intercity travel on something other than a bus. And without meaning to sound like one of those pompous, "trains are awesome and we should put them everywhere so as to be green and cool and European and keeping up with China" people, well, trains are awesome, and train travel is definitely the best way to travel. After all, I am one of those people.

So anyway, I get to the train station, show my necessary identification, get a ticket, and go down to the platform. As I stand there waiting, a woman starts talking. It's not clear if it's to me or to anybody else. She's talking about an issue she's having. At last she looks over to me, and I respond. We have a brief conversation. I found this indicative of California from my whopping 6 days there - people are very willing to share their conversations with you or to jump into your conversations. It comes from a collective personality trait somewhere between friendly and self-absorbed. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it, but it's different.

This train anecdote isn't about that. It's about being on the train, enjoying the view of seaside tombs and morning moons in a nearly empty coach (I guess San Diego to LA at 7:50 on a Sunday morning isn't a super busy time, huh). It's about our cheery conductor, who was all business whenever she walked into the cabin to check tickets or make sure things were in order, but was all chirpiness when on the mike announcing the stops. It's about what she said as we pulled into Anaheim:

"We are now arriving in Anaheim, for the Magic Kingdom, home of Disneyland, the Angels, and the Mighty Ducks. Welcome to Anaheim." Pause. "QUACK!"

- As for the other anecdote, it was upon arrival in LA's Union Station. I mentioned in the last post the roundabout and wasteful way I went about getting the necessary change to make a pay phone call. Once I had the $2.00 needed, I purchased a 3-minute phone call. I was calling a friend who had just moved out to LA from the East Coast. Our conversation:

Me: Hey, how's it going? Where do you want to meet?
She: Dan, good to hear from you! Hold on a second, I'm just checking something, I just want to check where I'll be.
Me: Ok, I should be in wherever in about 20 minutes, I just have to take the subway.
She: I don't know where to meet, hmm...
Me: (counting the seconds) I can go wherever, just tell me which stop to go to and I can get off there.
She: Well, we could meet somewhere on Hollywood, somewhere on Vermont, let me check on my computer.
Me: You have a car, right?
She: (humming as she searches, presumably) Huh? Yeah, I have my car.
Me: Then just meet me somewhere, it doesn't matter.
She: I don't know where, though, hold on.

Eventually, we settled on Vermont/Sunset. Where, while waiting for her, I walked around with my leather jacket over my shoulder, stroking my beard, waiting to be discovered. Anyway, the anecdote was more about how environment affects us: the same girl who was a high-powered hipster living in Brooklyn and an popped-collar douchebag when I saw her in Nantucket this summer (kidding!) was little Miss Languid Los Angeles after her move out west. There's a reason the airport abbreviation is LAX, I guess.

On the phone with my agent. What can I say, it worked.
- Now, to the big story.

The thing about Southern California (again, speaking from a whole two days of experience), is that there are hills everywhere, the ocean is right there, but the cities are more sprawled out than a tired USC student after their post-finals drinking binge. There is a downtown area for both San Diego and Los Angeles, but I spent time in neither of them; there's no action in the downtown areas, and yet the other areas don't feel like cities anymore than, say, my Boston suburb hometown of Burlington does. So not very.

I've been spoiled, I concede. I've lived in Tel Aviv for a year, a city of near perfect size; walkable, bikeable, and easily navigable, but not so tiny to feel unimportant. I do most of my traveling in Europe, where walking, bike-riding, and metro systems are the best ways to get around and sufficient to see a city. In the states, I have spent most of my time in the cities of Boston and New York, again two cities that one can walk or ride the rails around in attractive fashion. I love to go walking when I visit cities; on this trip, I uncorked a couple good walks before getting to California, including a trek from Union Square area to MOMA and back, and one from Vanderbilt's campus down to the river in Nashville and back.

In LA, though, nobody walks. "You can't walk to get around," I heard. "It's just how it is," they said. "Go back to cowtown, man!" they told me. (Ok, no they didn't). As evidenced on the whole of this trip and in many other ways in life, there's nothing I like more than doing something (stupid) when I'm told I can't. Something like taking a long walk in LA, for example...

My Israel wrestling teammate (and former UNC Tar Heel) Dusty dropped me off at Hollywood, right near all the attractions, the famous theaters and what not, within eyesight of the Hollywood sign. It was about 4:00 pm. I had scheduled to meet with someone at 8:30 down at Union Station, where I had left my things. I had time. It was a nice day out. I was relatively unburdened, carrying only the clothes on my back, my camera, a slim book (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour, an Introduction), and a slim notebook. I couldn't do it. I started walking downtown.

I started about 6900 Hollywood Boulevard. I quickly figured out that LA was gridded, and that I probably had to get down to somewhere near zero. Union Station's address is 800. So 61 blocks. What's 61 blocks? I only had to go one way.

I walked down Hollywood Boulevard until the glitz disappeared and I was back in post-urban suburbia. So I walked over Sunset Boulevard, right through Little Armenia. The blocks were longer than I had expected, even knowing how long this would take, and so when I returned to the familiar Vermont/Sunset intersection, I figured I should throw in the towel. They were right, I thought. You really can't walk in LA.

I went into a tea shop on Vermont just off that intersection. I drank tea, ate a cookie, and read the LA Times. I recuperated and refocused. I watched as a light drizzle began outside. I considered. I returned outside. I went to the subway station and looked at the map. I noticed the Red Line went right under Sunset Boulevard. I noticed Sunset Boulevard led straight into downtown and Union Station. I thought about how many sentences i could write consecutively that began with "I". I looked at the stairway down to the subway station with dismissive disdain, put my hands in my pockets, and kept walking.

The drizzle came on and off, not quite enough to threaten my jacket. I walked as it grew towards dusk. I quickly got confused at the intersection of Sunset and Hollywood, and ended up wandering in a residential neighborhood up on some hills (right around Sunset Drive - see the second point in the map below), and had to ask my way back to Sunset Boulevard.

View Larger Map Of One Man's Ridiculous Journey

Los Angeles has many facets to its wider reputation, the one that reaches a naive young man from the Boston 'burbs. I had already checked that my route wasn't going through any neighborhoods like "the Wood", Compton, Long Beach, or Snoop Dogg's house. Nevertheless, a new sense of paranoia crept into my mind as the dusk slid over me. I figured out a way to walk with my hands in my pocket and through my pocket holding my camera, so that no one could readily see that I was carrying a camera. I got concerned about my 500 shekel jacket. I kept my head up and my path in the light as much as possible, my pace brisk. I began muttering to myself about my stupidity.

Wouldn't this make you paranoid?

At the same time, I realized that I was walking through a lot of famous neighborhoods. Echo Park came and went like an Elliot Smith warble; Silver Lake showed up, the hip neighborhood that I had visited earlier that day with a friend to check out an apartment; Angelino Heights struck me as significant even as I cursed its poorly lit sidewalks; though I never saw Dodger Stadium, I knew that the signs pointing me to it meant I was reasonably close. There was something cool about all of this, even amidst my paranoia.

My first encounter came a little before Echo Park, as I ran into a group of dirty looking kids my age or a little younger walking a dog. They asked me for change to buy some dog food. I asked them if they could tell me how far away downtown was. They couldn't. I think I gave 'em a quarter.

Then I walked past a short, wide lady in her 40s or 50s. She had frizzy light brown hair, and freaked out a little when I walked by her. Understandable: she might have felt the same LA paranoia that I did, especially walking in the dark. But then she said something about a black beard. I stopped to scratch my beard.

"A very black beard, like the ultra orthodox."
"That's what I look like," I said. She kept rambling about the ultra Orthodox.
"I don't have a hat," I said with a smile.
"See this coat?" she said, showing me the white coat over her bag. "This coat and bag, I got it for $3.50, that's a very good price. The Jews like money, so if I got it from them, that's a good deal, I did good," and she kept ranting. I walked away, confused.

The Hollywood Sign is in there, somewhere.
Not long after that, wondering when if ever I would arrive downtown (I stopped in CVS, 7/11, and a gas station in hopes of finding a map to get a sense of how long it would be, I asked for directions at a Burger King and was just pointed to keep going), I popped into a record store. I had already visited the gigantic and famous Amoeba Music on this walk, shortly after I left Hollywood Boulevard, hours ago as it was. This time, I noticed there was a gig going on. I got to hear a couple songs from the electro-funk stylings of Globes On Remote (I can't say I dug it all that much, but it was still cool).

Digging the show (just not so much).
I continued along the road as it turned into Cesar E Chavez Avenue over the 110. I knew by this point that I was close. A little ease seeped into my soul. I spotted a touristy spot and decided to detour through it for a few minutes. I had stumbled on the famed Olvera Street, a little pedestrian alley of shops and food stands, mostly Mexican in nature. I can't say I saw too much of it, but I did notice it was going to get closed down sometime soon.

This Chinatown dragon was also a sign I was almost there.
That was basically the end of my journey, except for the laughter when I told my friends at dinner that night. As much fun as it is to do stupid things people say I can't do, the best part is when I tell them about it afterward. Even if they're laughing at me, it's a good time.

And by the way, you really can't walk in LA. I think my story is mere proof of that.