Monday, July 28, 2014

Walking Istanbul by Ana Astri-O'Reilly

"Good style in this piece. Lucid and cool."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off Travel Essay Contest


I felt unexpectedly at home in Istanbul. Sometimes it was a flavour that evoked that sense of familiarity, like the sweet peanut paste called halva, which took me back to my childhood. Argentina’s version of halva is called Mantecol and has a very similar taste. Sometimes it was the architecture. Istanbul underwent a process of Europeanization spearheaded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Father of the Turkish Republic, in the 1930s. Entire streets wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or Madrid or even my hometown of Buenos Aires, where generations of Spanish, Italian and French architects have left their mark. This was described by Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his book Istanbul. I lost myself in his book and in his city.

Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as a city of ruins, whose inhabitants have embraced as a common fate the melancholy brought about by the end of the Ottoman Empire and its faded glories. I see Istanbul as someone going through a midlife crisis: her best years are behind, the beauty of youth is fading and she’s trying to reinvent herself, find a new identity; however, she can’t quite achieve that because she is who she is.

Yalis, Ottoman wooden mansions on the Bosphorus
Likewise, traces of the Ottoman Istanbul scattered here and there remind locals and visitors of a past that stubbornly clings to the present. Stately yalis (Ottoman wooden mansions) perched on the edge of the Bosphorus, the tombstones of Ottoman dignitaries in the cypress-lined historic cemeteries topped with a turban or a fez to indicate the men’s rank or decorated with a flower for every child a woman gave birth to, magnificent mosques, a fortress.

Walking is the best way to know a city. You share a bit of the locals’ daily activities; it gives you a glimpse into their daily lives. You can tell what is going on by looking at their faces and the speed at which they walk. One can learn a great deal about a town by pounding the streets.

I learned that it is culturally acceptable for men to walk arm in arm as a sign of friendship. It also applies to women. However, I did not see couples holding hands or kissing, which tells me that public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women socialize separately. Men gather at tea houses, where they while away the afternoon sipping tea, playing backgammon and puffing away at their narghiles. Men seem to dominate the streets and the trades. Street vendors, waiters, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, carpet sellers are mostly male. I also learned that people are not as aware of personal space as some of us are. It was a little uncomfortable to have people walk so close behind me that when they took a step forward they made me stumble and were surprised when I looked daggers at them.

In some cultures, staring is considered rude. This may not be the case in Turkey. People stared at us without shame and without hostility. It was a bit uncomfortable at first but then it gave me carte blanche to stare back and observe them. Men, whom I mostly didn’t find handsome, sport a short beard and wear dark clothes. These are the people in dark coats and jackets [...] rushing home through the darkening streets Orhan Pamuk writes about. Women also wear dark clothes but their colourful veils  put a cheerful note in their austere wardrobe. Some ladies have exotic (to me) features: striking high cheekbones and kohl-lined, almond-shaped eyes reminiscent of Scheherazade and all the magic and mystery of the legendary Levant.  

Our hotel was close to the University of Istanbul so the area was full of students coming and going along Ordu Caddesi, both walking and on the tram. I felt a tiny bit envious of those students with their books and notes in hand. They can do anything they want; their life is still a blank book for them to write their own story. I wish I were that age again, with the world at my feet, but with what I know now. I noticed that a big proportion of those students were female, both veiled and unveiled.

The tram line along the Ordu Caddesi also goes to the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet Square, two of the most popular places to visit in the city, so passengers get on and off at every station. Traffic is dense, if rather chaotic at times. Horns are a constant feature all day long until late at night. While drivers always stop at the red light, pedestrians are more remiss. They take traffic lights as a mere suggestion and cross the street in a helter skelter fashion.

Yet, in the middle of this apparent chaos, devout Muslim men calmly wash their feet and perform the ablutions prescribed by Islam before prayers five times a day. I admire the strength of their faith. Under no circumstance would I ever wash my bare feet in the open air on a wintry day. Seeing this made me question my own religious faith and why I lost it. Did I ever really believe in God? Did the beliefs I used to have come from my heart or were they imposed from the outside? Probably the latter, especially when I was at Catholic school. I think some people need to believe in a Superior Being and some don’t. However, I do sometimes find comfort in the ritual of Mass, in the communion with other people and the energy it generates.

That´s the energy that courses through Istanbul when the muezzin’s calls to prayer reverberate throughout the city, bounces off walls ancient and new and vibrates in my chest. It is the energy that brings people and the past and the present together.


Ana Astri-O’Reilly is an Argentinean expat living in the US, travel blogger, avid reader, curious traveller. She worked as a translator and foreign language instructor in her native Buenos Aires. She is a contributing editor at and writes about travel on the blog Ana Travels She speaks fluent Spanish, English and some Portuguese.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Genki deska? by Alyson Hilbourne

"An iconic image we’re all familiar with – the bathing monkeys of Japan – is itself refreshed in this behind-the-scenes account."

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay contest


Genki deska?”
The red-faced monkey ignored me and continued to stare into the distance, unblinking, in a Zen like trance. Most of its body was submerged in a warm pool as it disregarded completely the bank camera lens we tourists pointed at it.
I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous. We’ve come across macaques before. In Thailand they raid bags and snatch ice creams from your hand. In Sri Lanka we had monkey bars on the windows at school to prevent them climbing in and wrecking classrooms. At Jigokudani Park signs advised against taking food into the area where the monkeys were. There was a bank of lockers for visitors to use. But apart from two macaques sitting on top of the drinks vending machine, presumably ready to fleece unwary tourists, these monkeys were placid, almost somnambulant in their movements, lulled by the warm water.
Jigokudani means Hell Valley in English and is a common name in Japan for thermal areas. One benefit of the unsettling seismic activity in the country is a ready supply of near boiling water that the Japanese use for onsen or hot spring bathing.
We walked into the park along a narrow snow-mud forest path. The heavy snow on the hillsides and dense wood deadened all sounds. Through the trees we glimpsed serow, a Japanese goat-antelope, a strange woolly creature, once hunted but now protected in many areas.
After paying the entrance fee, we descended a few steps and crossed a bridge to the man made pool beside a river where a dozen or so monkeys sat in a monkey onsen, grooming each other and studiously ignoring the visitors. It began to snow lightly and steam rose from the water. These monkeys are often called ‘Snow Monkeys’. It was easy to see why.
 The monkeys, macaques, are wild, but they are encouraged to stay in the area with free food. In winter they are happy to sit in the warm pool, but apparently in summer they need to be bribed to enter the hot water and food is thrown in.
After fifteen minutes of watching the monkeys do very little but pose for the cameras we wandered down to the river. There was less snow on the ground here, and adult macaques turned stones over looking for seeds, while the youngsters chased about.
We left the monkey park, returning along the forest path and took the bus to the nearby town of Shibu Onsen. The town has a history as a hot spring resort. Apparently in the past a warlord used the mineral waters to revive his men after battle. Today most of the bathers are tourists who stay in the ryokan, Japanese style inns that flank the narrow cobbled streets.
At Shibu Onsen

            Our evening’s entertainment was to don yukata, cotton kimonos and geta, Japanese wooden sandals, a meld of flip flops and ice-skates and stumble round town on a tour of the onsens. The shoes proved surprisingly difficult to walk in. The beautifully dressed Japanese ladies we see in Tokyo wearing silk kimonos move stylishly. My ankles rolled and twisted painfully as I negotiated the cobbles.
The ryokans give their guests a key, attached to a large plank of wood so you won’t inadvertently walk off with it, that opens the nine small bathhouses in the town. They are segregated, male and female, and once inside you are expected to observe the usual onsen rules such as washing yourself down before entering the water and bathing naked. The baths themselves are all slightly different. Most are lined with wood, which feels slightly slimy to the touch and only big enough for two or three people. One, that does not require a key, is larger and open to day visitors as well as those staying overnight.
Steam swirled around the bathrooms and the water temperature at one was so hot it was impossible to get in. Although entered by separate doorways inside the male and female onsens are only divided by a wooden panel so I was able to have a conversation with my husband through the wall.
“Hot, eh?”
“Too hot.”
“Are you cured? Shall we move on?”
             Mostly, however, the effect of the hot water was entrancing and I sat quietly, with a glazed expression rather like the macaques.
We followed other groups of tourists wearing yukata round the town. Some were just out for an evening stroll before or after dinner and were not using the onsens. The yukata is a perfectly acceptable dress code for dinner in Japan.
An old lady, bent over, but walking nimbly in her geta approached us outside one bathhouse.
Genki deska?” she asked, indicating the onsen behind us.
“She’s asking how we are,” I hissed at my husband.
We smiled and bowed slightly.
Genki desu (I’m fine),” I replied, stretching the limit of my Japanese.
She was delighted we understood and rattled off a stream of Japanese, punctuated with arm pointing and some polite bows.
We bowed back and scuttled away as soon as it seemed respectful having not understood a word. But I suspect she was telling us about the cures each onsen is supposed to give. One claims to cure gout, another eczema, other organic disease or neuralgia. Doing all nine brings good fortune. Each bathhouse is numbered and you can buy a souvenir cloth and ink stamp it with the wooden blocks outside each onsen as a keepsake.
            “Well, that’s my stomach problems cured,” said my husband as we tripped out of our fifth bath of the evening.
            “Mmmm, but you are rather red in the face,” I told him.
            Just as red-faced as the monkeys at Jigokudani Park a couple of kilometres up the valley. I hoped all their ailments were cured too.
            Genki des.

Alyson Hilbourne currently lives in Japan and uses the opportunity to travel as much as possible. She has had travel pieces published online and by the Oldie magazine in England. She also writes short stories, which occasionally are  published. She belongs to the online writing group, Writers Abroad.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Oh, Calcutta by Paola Fornari

All good stories test boundaries. The boundary here is the edge of the author’s comfort zone. Skilfully told.

-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off! Travel Essay Contest 


'There are 330 million Hindu Gods.'  Ajit had only told us about four so far: Krishna, Radha, Shiva, and Durga. I was brain-dead with their myriad details, though it was early morning and our tour had just started.
‘Tired already? I'll take you to have the best cha in Kolkata.' He led us to a tea stall in a narrow alleyway. 'Cows and buffaloes have been cleared from the streets. Now people have to cycle twenty miles to supply cha stalls with milk.'
We sipped mud-coloured liquid from rough clay cups. It was scorching, syrupy-sweet, and invigorating. We threw our empty cups onto a heap.
'What happens to the cups?' I wondered how many were used each day in this metropolis of fourteen million people.
'They disappear into the mud and someone makes more.'
Our next stop was Mother House, where Mother Teresa worked for forty years. One room houses a museum, in which huge panels relate her life, from her birth in Skopje to her death here. A letter written in her neat, strong hand condemns the practice of abortion of girl foetuses.
'Some criticise her movement for trying to impose Christianity on local Hindus,' Ajit said as we got back into the car.  'But she was a saint. I'm going to show you Kolkata's garbage mountain now.'
My husband kicked me and hissed: 'Where did you find this tour?'
'Trip Advisor. Highly recommended. Isn't it fun?
Hand-pulled rickshaws jostled for space with overflowing buses, cars, stray goats, and yellow taxis. We emerged onto a huge flyover. Kolkata has several upper-level roads along which traffic runs relatively smoothly, leaving the chaos below. Down at ground level, makeshift hovels with plastic awnings lined the road.
'People arrive here by rail from their villages, looking for a better future. But they end up living in squalor.'
We drove out of the city, and down a side road into the countryside. Fields of vegetables bordered both sides of the road.
A flat-topped mountain appeared in the distance, green and luxuriant. 'Once it's been thoroughly picked over, Kolkata's garbage all ends up here. This side has been cleared of recyclable material: glass, metal, plastic, paper. What's left is organic and fertile.'
As we drove alongside the mountain, it gradually changed into a mound of clearly visible garbage. Crows flew overhead, and on top of the mound I spotted people, dogs and goats.
'Fifty thousand people make a living from this,' Ajit said.
Between the mountain and us, people worked in lush fields of potatoes and spinach. ‘Half of the city's vegetables come from here. Think about it when you're next having salad at your hotel.' I gagged, and my stomach churned.
We drove off down a rough road. In front of rows of shacks, piles of garbage were neatly sorted into categories.
'This is almost the end of the cycle. See those shards of plastic? People here chop up old bottles and packaging into tiny pieces and sell them to factories. Now we're going to see Kolkata's most revered spot, the Temple of Kali. Some people say that this is where the name Kolkata originated.' I jerked awake: the temple featured strongly in Paul Theroux's novel A Dead Hand, which I had just finished reading.
'Kali, Shiva's consort, is known as "She who destroys". She overcomes evil, and we consider her a mother goddess.'
We worked our way on foot down the bustling avenue which led to the temple. Terrified of getting lost, I clung to Ajit. Stalls by the side of the road displayed white shell bangles, icons, and powdered red dye. 'For bindis,' Ajit explained. 'The dots on the women's foreheads.'
Three women were prostrate on the muddy ground, scrambling slowly forwards.
'They are giving thanks. Perhaps a wish was fulfilled. A child survived a disease, or a despised neighbour died.'
A couple of goats were tethered to posts. 'Would you like to see them being sacrificed?'
'Absolutely not.' The sacrificial scene in Theroux's novel was enough for me. We emerged into a large square.
After half an hour of hiccupping and jolting through traffic, we were in a tiny restaurant.
'My stomach is in your hands,' I told Ajit.
'In my experience people fall ill much more often from hotel food than in places like this. Leave it to me.' As Ajit dashed back to the car to fetch our bottled water, my mind drifted back to this morning's salad fields. Soon we were tucking into deliciously spicy fish and plain rice, served with what looked like an oversized chapatti. 'It's called handkerchief roti, because it's so huge and finely rolled.'
After lunch, Ajit announced: 'Special treat for you now'. We pulled up in front of the Botanical Gardens. Once inside the gates, we could have been be a million miles away from the crazy traffic and deafening cacophony of honking horns.
A couple strolled past, hand in hand. 'It's a great place for young people. You can't do that in Kolkata's streets. I spent many an afternoon here as a teenager.’ Ajit chuckled.
At the end of a shaded path, we came to a fenced-off circle, inside which there were hundreds of tall, narrow-trunked trees, forming a massive canopy above us.
'This looks like a copse, but it's one tree: the largest banyan in the world.' Ajit indicated the branches reaching out horizontally. 'See these shoots growing downwards? They sprout aerial roots, and when they reach the ground, a new tree grows. This banyan is more than two hundred and fifty years old. In the 1920s the original trunk got a fungus and started rotting away, so it was removed to protect the rest.'
We left the tranquil gardens and drove towards the River Hooghly. Suddenly we found ourselves in gridlocked traffic on the old suspension bridge. 'This is the busiest bridge in the world,' Ajit said.
On the pavement beside us, men carried enormous loads on their heads. A fight broke out between a rickshaw driver and a pedestrian. I wound up my window and closed my eyes, gripping the edge of my seat. I heard an ambulance siren, and wondered if the patient would ever reach hospital. At last we inched forwards.
 ‘Just two more stops,’ Ajit said. We drove to a narrow street where large bamboo marquees were being erected on either side.
'They're called pandals. They're for the biggest Hindu festival in Bengal, Durga Puja which is next week. Groups decorate their pandals with icons. The festivities last five days, then all the effigies are thrown into the Hooghly.'
We found the car again, and a narrow opening took us back to the banks of the Hooghly. To our left was a massive metallic box-like structure. 'That's the electric oven.' Ajit pointed to our right, where the last embers of an open fire were dying. ‘And that's the traditional cremation method. It'll set you back 15,000 rupees. The electric one costs 500 rupees. It's subsidised by the government. Our greatest Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore, was cremated here.'
On the way back to the hotel, exhausted and elated, I thanked every one of the 330 million Hindu gods for sparing me a corpse.


Paola Fornari was born on an island in Lake Victoria, and was brought up in Tanzania. She has lived in a dozen countries over four continents, speaks five and a half languages, and describes herself as an expatriate sine patria. She will shortly be moving from Bangladesh to Ghana.