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A Room with a View?


Turkey, 1998


These stories often end with the discovery of a perfect beach, but in this case that's where it begins. Pat and I were engaged in a compatibility study masquerading as a vacation. Over the previous six months, we had grown extremely fond of each other on a two to three times a week basis, but she was extremely skeptical that we could stomach each other for 12 consecutive days. I was far less skeptical, but prepared to make myself scarce if it turned out that she was right. The proving ground was Turkey's Mediterranean coast.

Initial results from our research activities were far more encouraging than even I had imagined possible. We were having a great time, and also, significantly, responding well to adversity. When we were both laid low by one of those puzzling intestinal ailments (you retrace your tracks, trying to recall what risky street food could do such unspeakable things to your guts), we formed a remarkably resilient mutual aid society. It was fine with me if we spent the day within shouting distance of a toilet; and she reciprocated with admirable understanding when, on arriving at the best restaurant in town, I was overcome with a sudden attack of nausea and fled to the men's room, arriving just in time.

Now, at the end of a long gravel road (my driving tips had brought the first hint of possible areas of conflict), we had stumbled onto a broad strip of sand that stretched for as far as the eye could see in both directions, with hardly a sign that any human had ever been there before us. We swam. We lay out in the warm sun. We swam some more. We felt close to each other, sensing that we might indeed actually be compatible over the longer term. Off in the distance, a dark speck appeared. It drew closer and larger and as it did, we realized that it was a boy of fourteen or fifteen, with a gun slung over a shoulder. Twenty yards away, the boy stopped, sunk to one knee, and nestled the butt of the gun against his shoulder. We looked into each other's eyes, daring not to utter our innermost thoughts. Were we infidels about to become victims of some fundamentalist maniac pronouncing summary judgement on the appropriateness of our beach behavior? Were we about to become tomorrow's headline in the International Herald Tribune? Was an international incident about to occur whose end we, unfortunately, would have to miss?

Above us, a lone seagull glided by. Suddenly, the boy pointed his gun toward the sky and took aim. The air was filled with the sound of a shotgun blast. The bird flew on. And then the boy continued past us down the beach. OK, so it wasn't quite as perfect a beach as we'd initially thought, but as long as the locals only took pot shots at seagulls, we could handle it. Considering that it was late in the afternoon, we both agreed that we would have to return the following day.

Still, there was a small problem. It was a thirty-minute drive back to the main road, and a goodly distance further to the couple of dots on the map where we might - or might not - find a hotel. If we couldn't come up with a place to spend the night in reasonably close proximity to the beach, we probably weren't going to make it back.

And then there was Pat's strong preference - which I didn't find all that unreasonable in a woman accustomed to the usual comforts of the late twentieth century - for a room with toilet, shower and hot water. Neither of us was very optimistic, as we drove through the tiny hamlet of Kumluova at the end of the gravel road, looking for an "otel" or a "pansiyon". We stopped at a tiny market, bought a bottle of water, and asked the shopkeeper in English if there was a pension in town. He signaled us to wait, and returned a few minutes later with a girl of thirteen or fourteen. To say that her command of English exceeded his by a factor of ten or perhaps a hundred is not to suggest that she was fluent, but at least the message got through. "Yes," said the man. "You follow," said the girl. The man grabbed a crutch, hobbled out to his car, and led us back a mile or two, where he stopped in front of a boxy building that housed several commercial enterprises on the ground floor. A few words were exchanged, and then a young man said to us, "Yes, room, you wait."

The shopkeeper departed, and as daylight ebbed - and with it, the chance of finding another room should the one we were waiting for prove unsuitable - we exchanged the sort of friendly banter that is exchanged when strangers who can barely understand each other try to engage in friendly banter. The young man told us that he was a cook, and that his daughter, who was clearly three or four, was one. Or perhaps he told us he was a crook, and that his daughter had won a Nobel Prize. Possibly he told us that the shopkeeper's leg was crooked, but he had one good leg and a very nice daughter. We nodded and smiled and told him that Turkey was a wonderful place with kind people. He told us that he had another child (unless what he actually said was that he liked his curry mild). Pat told him she also had children. You got the sense that maybe he saw the prospect of marrying them off. They were grown, she said, but this didn't seem to penetrate. "You children, I children - it's good," he said.

We were sitting outside, in a group that included the young man and the daughter, a fat and toothless old man who never once unfolded his legs from the lotus position, his equally rotund wife, and various other comers and goers. "Where you come from?" asked the young man. "America," we answered in unison. The young man seemed to be explaining this to the old man, supplemented by additional commentary. We heard the word "America". The face of the old man brightened. "Clintonmonica," he said. It was heartwarming to know that the indiscretions of our president could make such an impact at such a distance.

We'd learned in our brief stay that the Turks were fond of their tea. No social discourse could proceed without tea. If you were waiting to rent a car, or - naturally enough - checking out the prices of Turkish carpets, or the boy had gone to see whether another stall in the market had a black bootleg Nike gym bag in stock, tea was served. And if there wasn't any really compelling reason to be waiting - well then, that was all the more reason to serve tea. One of the mysteries of Turkish culture associated with this tea ritual was the manner in which it was served - in a small glass without handles. This meant, as far as we could see, that you couldn't possibly drink it without also doing serious damage to your fingers. But seeing how the Turkish tradition dated back a thousand years or so, there must have been some method to it whose logic simply escaped us.

So we drank tea, or at least attempted to do so. The light was fading, and still we waited. To what end was unclear. Perhaps the occupant of the room needed to be evicted for the night. Perhaps the key needed to be located. Perhaps they were simply waiting until it was so dark that we would have little choice but to accept the room.

A couple of children joined the group, clearly to gawk.Someone who happened to pass by affirmed that Turkey and America were friends, and the young man told us, unprompted, that he himself wasn't Turkish but Kurdish. It seemed important to him to assure us of this. We waited some more. I watched a woman and a girl who were busy with a pile of some cut crop, puzzling over just what it was they were doing, until I realized they were reclaiming old string from harvested plants.

"Yes, now you can see," said the young man, nearly an hour later, and took us around the house, up an outside flight of stairs, through an entrance hallway and up another flight of stairs, and then into a reasonably spacious corner room. A pretty young woman with exquisite gray eyes and white head scarf was departing with a broom, but this is not to say that the place was clean. It was more as if she had rearranged the dust.

There was, indeed, a toilet and shower, and with a bit of patience, hot water as well. There was a broad balcony overlooking five or ten acres of plastic encased greenhouses, and a mile away, a rocky ridge rising to meet the sky. There were two chairs, a homemade table, a newspaper covered crate, one sagging cot and a somewhat more promising looking double bed. There were two pairs of sandals at the foot of the double bed, and a large refrigerator, unplugged, standing in the corner. There were two bare lightbulbs, one of which was functional. There was a nightlight that glowed with a red bulb that made the place look like a brothel. And there were the kinds of signs that the toilet had recently been used that you would rather not see. The price was about eight dollars. I could see that Pat was not quite convinced that this met the minimal standards she had in mind.

The man was awaiting our answer. "What do you think?" I asked. "Uh," said Pat with a look that was considerably less affectionate than that which she'd given when we had first stumbled onto the beach. "It's not that bad," I persisted, talking out of the corner of my mouth just in case our Kurdish hotelier understood more English than we'd been led to believe. "Hmmm," she replied. "And it's only one night," I continued through my teeth. "One night," she repeated. "And look how big it is. Plus there's a great view of the greenhouses." I don't think I was sounding particularly persuasive, but Pat couldn't offer any viable alternative. And so, more or less by default, we agreed to take the room.

We settled in, interrupted briefly by the gray-eyed woman, who brought Pat a scarf (it wasn't altogether clear if this was offered as a token of her friendship, or because she thought it appropriate for Pat to cover her head) and deposited a plate of succulent watermelon on the table. Despite the still tenuous states of our respective digestive systems, it was about time to see what we might rustle up in the way of a more substantial evening meal, but unbeknownst to us, we had actually signed up for the package deal; shortly after eight o'clock, there was a knock on the door and the young woman returned with a tray which included the sort of selection you might have made if you'd been watching an all night movie marathon and smoking controlled substances. There was a plate overflowing with home made french fries, two bowls of a mysterious creamy liquid, a couple of large green peppers stuffed with soft white cheese (garnished with more french fries), a loaf of Turkish bread, another generous serving of watermelon, a bowl of olives, and a plate of pickled okra. And there was also a wine bottle, but that, we soon discovered, was filled with water. The mysterious creamy liquid turned out to be a subtle bulgar soup, the stuffed peppers were scrumptuous, and the pickled okra a real treat - in short, it was authentic local fare, simple but tasty, and it probably only set our recovery from instestinal distress back a day or two.

It was Satuday night and to celebrate, Pat proposed a game of Scrabble. The townsfolk, it turned out, had rather less cerebral and restrained ways to divert themselves. As Pat produced a string of 40-point words (as was her habit), the sounds of the locals' weekend festivities drifted through our open windows - the haunting strains of Turkish folk music, punctuated by a symphony of small and large caliber guns, discharging in single bursts, syncopated, semi-automatic quarter and eighth notes, and clusters of staccato grace notes as can only be produced by Uzis, M16s, and AK47s.

I wandered out to the balcony to see if I could get a fix on where the music was coming from, and looked up to see a skyfull of stars such as I hadn't seen in so long that I'd almost forgotten just how beautiful the Milky Way could be when it cast a creamy glow from horizon to horizon. The gunfire had died down and the drone of the music rose and fell with the ebb and flow of the warm breezes. "Let's go for a walk and see where the party is," I suggested, and so when the game was mercifully concluded, we descended to the road and followed it in the direction of the music.

Almost immediately, the stillness was broken, this time by the sound of racing motors. A motorcycle streaked by, followed a moment later by a second motorcycle, this time with sidecar, and at least four or five passengers. Just about as soon as the roar of these two vehicles had faded away, we were caught in the lights of an oncoming tractor. The ground shook beneath us as the tractor, with a crew of five, and accompanying wagon, loaded with several more large families, rumbled past at forty or fifty miles an hour.

No, you couldn't accuse the hard working farmers of Kumluova of wasting away their weekend nights on anything as mundane as Scrabble. It was Saturday night tractor races and target practice, we now discovered, as several more behemoths thundered by, and a few more bursts of gunfire echoed off the hills. We walked the road, scurrying to the side each time another vehicle rocketed past, making our acquaintance with donkeys, cows, goats and various other barnyard animals tethered to trees and fences along the way, heading in the general direction of the music, just hoping that a spent bullet wouldn't return to earth at an inopportune moment. But even as the music grew louder, we always had the sense that it was just around the bend beyond the next farm. A few more shots rang out, and then another burst of automatic weapon fire, as a convoy of cars and motorcycles raced by, followed by two or three overloaded tractors. We seemed to be going against the flow, and besides we were uncomfortably far-removed from a toilet. It was getting late, and we had a demanding day of beach-bumming ahead of us. Perhaps we'd just have to miss the party. We were, after all, involved in a research project, and there was important work yet to be done.




West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.


China 2010: An annotated album


Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.



Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 


Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 

A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow

Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 

Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition



Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 


The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993 

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods


Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha


Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 



The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga

Buffalo News, 1996


On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride


A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 


End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls



Yes, I do have a job, sort of. Free-lance writing, journalism, editing, translation. If it's English words you're looking for, I can help you out. Click here for more information. It pays the rent.



Katvanger — dubious blues, twisted roots, counterfeit country & western, improbable jazz, and more ...


plus Jim Wake & Sleepwalker (1994-2014) — blues with a twist, rock and roll with a hop and a skip, country and western with tongue in cheek, quasi-tango, pseudo-Caribbean, proto-klezmer, etc.



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