Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Shambala

I'm in Shambala, a tiny commune perched on a cliff over the Mediterranean.

Accessible only by a 30 minute hike from a remote bus stop, Shambala soaks up money like a resort hotel, or like a cult. This indescribable little society is run by a three-generation matriarchal dynasty of self-described "witches"

whose bidding is carried out by a corps of volunteers

who trade a few hours work for lodging, fun in the sun, and spiritual enlightenment.

Liıke a cult, people don't leave Shambala. They come for a few days and end up staying for weeks. I don't know if it's the views, the meditation, the chakra readings, the delicious dinners

or the nightly raves. Maybe it's the communal sleeping on sofas overlooking the sea, where in the middle of the night random guests climb into bed next to you and falls asleep:

Whatever it is, as my stay ends, I too find myself asking for one... more... night.

"There is no room for you," a volunteer informs me placidly. "But you can sleep where you want and put your bags in the white tent for 40 Lira a night."

I contemplate becoming a volunteer instead.

In the end, I decided to leave. One can only become so enlightened, and anyway, maybe I don't need Shambala: the owner, Emine, had read my chakras in the temple:


and was astonished to find them in perfect harmony!

Friday, July 25, 2008

Escape through the Kaçkars

With Adnan as our guide, Olee, Hadar, and left on a two day hike through the Kaçkar mountains:



On the way we passed glacial lakes:


and met a mountain girl with a wreath of flowers:


The people of this region are invariably beautiful. The Israelis brought absurd amounts of food with them, and that night we pitched tents and cooked what was probably the only Kosher meal in all the Kaçkars:


As we looked at the stars after dinner, Hadar and Olee taught me Israeli folk songs and I taught them the few American spirituals I know (thanks Maman!).


At dawn, we were awoken by men installing electricity in the region for the first time. I snapped this photo of the view from my tent:

Escape through the Kaçkars: Cast of Characters

Unable to bear any more partying in Istanbul, I sought a few days refuge in the Kaçkar mountains of northeastern Turkey.

Here are the characters:

Mutlu and Reynold: This unlikely couple of a Turkish Chocolatier and a Dutch color expert. They were kind enough to give me a ride to the nearest city. Despite their union being completely unnacceptable to Turkish society, they were some of the most charmingly straight-laced people I've met on this trip.

Adnan: Our guide through the mountains. Ardent Turkish nationalist, hiker, hunter, and defender of the environment.


Olee: My irrepressibly funny and outgoing Israeli treckmate. She's been traveling through Turkey with her friend Hadar.


Hadar: A thoughtful Israeli who speaks Turkish and is writing her PhD thesis on a secretive Kabbalistic cult of professed Muslims who have survived in Turkey for centuries.


Ayder: The secluded mountain town from which I started my hike. Pictured here is the lobby of my guesthouse. This town is so remote that when Nazli called the wrong guesthouse, they asked if she was looking an American professor. When she said yes, they gave her the number of the right guesthouse!

Istanbul: Old and New

Istanbul is ground zero of the war between old and new. Here, a woman with a Muslim headscarf watches bikini-clad women frolic on the beach:

What's old and new? The old, of course, is the fiercely Western and secular Turkish society. The new is the resurgent Islam, battling secular Istanbul street-by-street and neighborhood-by-neighborhood.

Old Turkey:


New Turkey:


Many secular Turks refuse to go to highly Muslim neighborhoods, where people frown upon men and women walking together. So my guide was the daring and protean Linden:


a liberal, American friend of Nazli's who had no problem donning a headscarf to explore these treacherous parts of the city.

A Night at the Turkish Movies

How better to cap a day at the baths than a night at the movies? Nazli had introduced me to her actress friend Pelin:

who's famous enough that everyone in Turkey immediately recognizes her name. Pelin invited us to the set of her latest movie:

a gangster flick where she plays a Russian prostitute. Her face was made up as if she had just been beaten up.

A Day at the Turkish Baths

To cleanse myself from the parties, I went to the Turkish baths and ordered Full Service:

I hope that doesn't mean what I think it means! With no idea what was going to happen, I changed into the Tartan skirt they gave me:

and put on my ceremonial wooden slippers:

I cannot divulge what happened in the inner sanctum, but it was unbearably hot, and involved a lot of scrubbing from my hairy, unsmiling tellak:

Afterward, I felt lightheaded from the heat, but they mercifully gave me a bottle of water in the outer sanctum:



Partying in Istanbul for Dummies

I am staying in the heart of Istambul at the posh apartment of my old college friend, the lovely Nazli:

Nazli is at the eye of the storm of the young, ultra-Western Turkish intelligentsia. Her phone rings constantly with calls from friends, media outlets, and NGOs. She invited me to watch her give a radio interview on the technological transformation of Turkey:

She's also described her fascinating and precarious position as an well-known defender of free speach in a country that banned youtube for political reasons.

Oh. And these intelligentsia kids know how to party... every... night... of the week...



These pictures don't really capture it (I didn't want to take pictures), but it's crazy. I can't keep up with these kids.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Some Details from Dubai

I layed over in Dubai, and wish I had more time to see this enigmatic city. Alas, I was stuck in the airport, which was like any other. One unusual thing did catch my eye:

Apparently, government censors black out inappropriate pictures with magic marker on literally every copy of every magazine:

They even do this to the pictures inside. It's largely symbolic however, as a lot of salacious stuff survives the censors, like this Axe add:

On the way to Istambul, our flight made some weird banking turns at 35,000 feet. I was wondering why until I saw the display:

We were avoiding Iraqi airspace!

Zen and the Art of Not Dying in the Himalayas

I met two Portuguese guys in search of adventure, Luis and Antonio:

We rented sketchy motorcycles and rode up a mountain into the snow and thin air, until we reached the highest road in the world.


Apparently, you can't park on the highest road in the world.

While up there, we met some Indians and had a dance party:

video

On the way down, Luis's bike jammed in the accelerate position. He bailed; the bike spun out, wheels spinning wildly. He landed bruised and bloody half a meter from a shear cliff into the clouds. It was so scary it made me dizzy. The Indians caught up and were amazed he was still alive. "Your girlfriend must be praying for you," explained one of them. I also managed to spin out and scrape myself, but not so badly.

I thought a brush with death is supposed to make life sweeter, but the experience robbed my companions their Portuguese bravado. That night we ate dinner almost without speaking.

Leh

I've been chilling in beautiful and chilly Leh, Ladakh in the Himalayas:

The toursists are just as friendly as Bhagsu, but much more healthy and active. You can tell, just by looking at them. Here I am with British friends Dave and Maddy:

It's a outdoorman's paradise out here, and I've been to religious festivals in the mountains, whitewater rafting, and motorcycling. On the bus back from a festival, I meet three Ladakhi girls.

Despite their dress, they were very provincial Ladakhi. One of them told me she was studying to be a teacher.
"I'm a teacher." I told her.
"Oh," she replied. "Do you teach in your village?"
It was the most lovely question I'd ever heard.
"No. I teach in different village."

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Avoiding the Kashmiri Insurgency

After leaving Bhagsu, I took a 6 hour cab ride to Jammu. I didn't tell my folks to avoid worrying them, but this part of my itinerary took me right into the heart of Kashmir, the disputed region between India and Pakistan. (They were bombing tourist buses just two years ago, but things have since calmed.)

There was a huge Indian army presence in the streets (no pictures--the Lonely Planet urged against take them). I was a little nervous so took the unusual step of asking my cab driver Rishi:

to spend the night with me. I booked a night at the fanciest hotel in town, the KC Residency, which was spookily empty. I think Rishi and I were the only guests:

His job was to drive me to the airport the next day, but spirit me out of Kashmir if there was any trouble. The next morning, the headlines in the newspaper made me a little nervous:

but things were calm on the street.

There was tons of security at the airport. You had to go through metal detectors to get between any two rooms, and they confiscated my AAA batteries. The flight was fine though, and I landed in beautiful Leh:

I left the airport and was about to get in a cab, when a man came running after me, calling my name and waving something in the air.


It was my AAA batteries. They hadn't confiscated them, just carefully tagged and sent them separately.

Indian Trucks

On the road from Bhagsu to Jammu I saw a lot of trucks.

India has a way of getting a guy back into trucks.

They are hand-painted, including the ubiquitous advice to "blow horn."

This is completely unnecessary since there are only three parts to Indian driving: accelerating, braking, and blowing the horn.