Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Istanbul, Bodrum and Kos

(That title sounds like a Turkish law firm)

The flight from Singapore to Istanbul left around midnight. Too wired to sleep wtih the thought of finally getting to Europe and seeing a brand new city (for me), I stayed up all night. A silent asian girl sat next to me so I read and movie-surfed until we reached Dubai to refuel and let off some passengers. The Asian girl left, letting me strike up a conversation with the older guy in the next seat, who turned out to be Captain Hiko, a Turkish charter boat skipper who lived near Bodrum, where I was going after Istanbul. He really tried to be helpful and gave me all kinds of advice.
Istanbul: Upon arrival I heard pages for "David Benazai", and at first thought it might be Jen (my friend from Virginia) coming early to surprise me (she was due to meet me in a week), but it was a chauffer with a ride to the hotel that I forgot I had booked months earlier. And what a location! I had no idea it was practically in between the Aya Sofia and the Blue Mosque, AND steps away from the walls of Topkapi Palace! You should see the incredible views from the roof! The top picture is one. You can see how close I was to the Blue Mosque. Also, remember "Midnight Express", that movie of an American stuck in a horrible Turkish prison? It too was just steps away, but incredibly renovated into a beautiful Four Seasons hotel with no room under $600 a night (pictured here). I took a wander inside, and now I can say, why yes, actually, I HAVE been in a Turkish prison.
Of course I did my usual arrival walk after dumping my bags. While trying to decide which mosque to go into first, a young Turkish Andy Garcia look-alike (I think named Ali) told me the Blue Mosque closed first, so I should go there. Oh, and it just happened that he owned a carpet shop in the mini-bazaar behind it! The Mosque was incredible inside, but outside, for the rest of the day, it was a battle of wills between me and every carpet salesman in Istanbul (so it seemed) trying to lure me into their stores. One actually charmed me into stepping inside to see some, even though I told him repeatedly I had no intention of buying anything. There wasn't much pressure and it was kind of interesting to see the different types of weaves, etc. There are also a few establishments with imperfectly translated names, leading to sometimes humorous results, like the restaurant called the "Meat House", or the little store called the "World Cheapen Market".
Obviously I was pretty tired by the afternoon (as it was my night) having skipped a night of sleep, so I went to bed early and slept about 12 hours. Refreshed the next day after breakfast served by a grumpy waiter who refused to give me juice or water, just tea, I felt up to the challenge of the Grand Bazaar. It had its interesting moments, but all in all it was like a gigantic shopping mall without the ritz and glitz. Hundreds or perhaps even thousands of shops within a walled and roofed section of the city, selling a dazzling array of things. I took a picture of an outrageously ornate telephone for Dad.

But a pattern quickly started to develop: one whole area was jewelry, antoher rugs, another antiques. For a suburban boy raised in the land of shopping malls, only the odd store selling unusual items held any real interest. The book section didn't hold a single english-language tome, but one book dealer had a bunch of cats hanging around, so of course I liked that!
A back gate led to the Istanbul University, and along the way back a square held little old women in rags selling birdseed, just like in "Mary Poppins", but without the cockney accent.
I explored more areas but skipped the Aya Sofia and Topkapi, saving them for when Jen comes. The next day I took a short flight down to Bodrum, (where the flight attendants flirted with a young passenger), a small harbor town on the Mediterranean. It's a fairly nice port with an interesting castle next to the harbor, and I found my hotel easily enough-- Captain Hiko had recommended the Hotel Grup. Not a promising name, but the Captain said it was good. Too bad I trusted him; I was overcharged for a room with no blanket, no towels but a fantastic view (pictured here)... which was noisy that night--especially after Turkey won some soccer game and the whole town went crazy, chanting and honking horns...right outside my window! And the "balcony" was a skinny strip of slippery marble with a rail only about two feet high... so that kinda took the fun out of using it.
One downer: so far the whole time in Turkey it was cold & rainy. Even the next morning waiting for the ferry it rained, but it finally got sunny as the ferry approached the Greek island of Kos--perhaps a good omen.
Kos: I got off the boat not knowing where the 2 hotels were that the book recommended, but a guy stitting on a scooter asked if I wanted to see his hotel. He seemed like an honest sort (I'm getting an instinct for reading people) so I got on his scooter, luggage and all, and we made a mad dash past people on the harbor to his hotel, which turned out to be really quite nice, and only 30 euros a night. The guy, Halil (whose name sound more Turkish than Greek but I didn't want to risk insulting him by asking about it) is really friendly and anxious to please. And if the truth be told, he's quite the Greek Gary Cooper, so I took a picture of "Hal", as I call him, for you ladies... now you can fantasize about summer trips to Mediterranean islands and handsome Greek men!

As usual I dropped off my bags and hit the streets. As I was walking it started to rain, so I ducked into a cafe and found cheese pies. How could I have forgotten them? I got a big round one and it was great! It's funny how even things like rain can have unexpected good consequences. By the time I was done the sun came out, so I continued down until I found (by accident) the Plane tree of Hippocrates. Long story, but it was cool to just happen on it, like turning the corner in Paris and seeing the Eiffel Tower in front of you for the first time. Well, maybe not that special, but you know what I mean!
Now guess what movie's on? "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", what else?
The weather the rest of the stay was beautiful, and it was a real pleasure to just stroll around the town, snooping in little shops, some with some beautiful Greek plates that I just had to shoot, and occasionally checking out some ruins now & then. The Romans must have liked this place; every other block is fenced off around some ruins, including the smallest little ampitheater I think I've ever seen. Most you can just walk down into if you like; all are free. There's also a large castle on the harbor (Just like in Bodrum) that I explored today. Inside it's pretty overgrown, and in a clump of grass I spotted a clutch of newborn kittens. I left some food for Mama. In fact I've been feeding cats all over town; they're everywhere and usually hungry. I finally met the mysterious other person who leaves them food: surprisingly, it turned out to be an old Greek man-- he was leaving all kinds of old-looking fish, and even filling some water bowls with bottles. Unfortunatly he didn't speak a word of English, so I couldn't ask him about it.
I had a final stroll through town this evening to see how pretty it looked with the tavernas all lit up and full of tourists, and the harbor was pretty nice too. I had a final Greek salad and those giant beans, and headed back to "Hal's Place". Today, my last day here, I rented a bike and wore myself out biking way outside of town just to see more of the island. You really need a car to explore the entire thing, but I got a good look at the countryside, which was typical quiet Greek island stuff, except the shore facing Turkey which is still littered with old abandoned bunkers left over from their little "cold war" with their now-fellow EU members. Hopefully the old animosity will be ancient history soon.
Next: back to Istanbul.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The "Pet Shop" in Malaysia

I'm on the bus now back to Singapore, with heavy heart. Sad not only because I had to say goodbye to two new and already dear friends, but sad for the animals in this country. I just left the Malaysian version of a pet store, and inside was sad indeed. All manner of animals were caged inside and out for sale, from the parakeets and mackaws and sugargliders outside to many more inside. Chicks and ducklings crowded in cages, American porcupines (God knows why we would allow them to be exported here), doves and pigeons crammed together, and cages full of very tiny birds, almost as small as hummingbirds, each cage with some of them dead on the bottom. Also turtles and large fish of many kinds in green, cloudy water. Many of these animals will not be pets, but meals. I take a few pictures. Other tortoises languish on the dirty floor in a corner.
One odd find: several American porcupines, as identified by Raymond, though as he said, "As to how and why they wound up here, who kows?" All we knew is that someone in the United States is exporting our wildlife to Asia, where what happens to them (if they survive the trip) is anybody's guess. He then asks a man hosing down the cages (including the birds inside) what is in one cage; something little and fuzzy sleeps in a bowl. The man reaches in and dumps four more sugar gliders out of it. They are nocturnal and should be allowed to sleep, but they groggily stir about, one climbing to the cage top try to hide.
In the very back corner a cage holds one of the tiny birds, flying back and forth, for some reason alone in this cage. A brick holds down the mesh flap covering a hole in the top. No one is looking; I move the brick and flap so a hole is made that hopefully the bird will use soon after I'm gone.
He and his lead volunteer Marilyn (sp?) question the store owner about the poor conditions of two kittens in a bare, dirty cage. There is no water. After they talk the owner brings out a bowl of water for the crying kittens. I don't have the heart to look at them for long.
What hit me the hardest was seeing, in one cage all by himself, a half-grown gosling still partly yellow with fuzz, but looking about to sprout feathers. His beak looked worn down, perhaps from pecking at the cage so much, and he quacked desperately at me as he padded back and forth on the wire bottom of his dry, lonely cage. For some reason I instantly name him Gus. His little goose feet had never known water to swim in, his face had never felt sushine or a mother's love. How I wished I could buy him and set him free in some pond, able to paddle about and live in peace as he was meant to. But my bus to Singapore was leaving in less than ten minutes and there was no time to take him anywhere. All I could do was say goodbye to him and hope someone actually DID want him as a pet instead of as dinner. But I know I'm just kidding myself; no one keeps geese as pets in this country. Too late I wonder if perhaps I should have asked Raymond to take him. I also wish I had taken a picture of him. I only got a shot of some ducklings in another cage.

Ducks, chickens, geese and all other birds are raised by their parents, like mammals, and their mothers teach them the ways of the wild as they grow up. All the chicks and other babies in the cages were motherless, and would probably not survive if released on their own. It's no better in the U.S. of course, where birds like that are crammed even tighter in even more horrible conditions (darkness, stifling heat, ammonia-reeking air), but you never see that. What no one sees is easy to ignore and forget about while eating that Thanksgiving dinner or lunch at KFC. Raymond urges me to eat some meat; he thinks I gave up eating flesh too quickly, and that some in moderation is not bad. I nod but I know, especially now after what I've just seen, that I will never eat it again. Goodbye, Gus. I'm sorry I didn't save you. But at least you helped to inspire me to do better next time.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Singapore and Malaysia,then Goodbye to Asia

Whew! It's been yet another incredible visit, this time to Singapore, the city/island/country at the southern tip of Malaysia and only one degree above the equator, as it turns out. I flew in exhausted after fighting my way through the Tokyo metro to the aiport, then flying the 7 hours here. I didn't know quite what to expect. I mean, you see pictures of Japan all the time, and maybe some of Thailand, but how often do you see anything of Singapore? I didn't know if it was another poor, crowded city like Bangkok or super-teeming like Tokyo.
Well, it's neither. It's actually beautiful, clean, modern, uncrowded and amazingly diverse. The airport itself is a marvel of modern design, complete with clear, easy-to-read signs in English, and I got my first glimpse of the new Airbus 380 double-decker jumbo jet pictured here. For the first time I had not pre-booked a hotel, but they have a desk for that at the airport that does it for you. And they have a system of "shared-cabs" which is just that: you join other travelers into the city and share the expense-- which is nowhere near as steep as Japan was, by the way.
So I went right to sleep the first night, and the next morning, rested up, I walked around "Little India" which the hotel was in, and picked up a new power cord for my laptop which I had stupidly lost somewhere on the way from Tokyo. I got it at the "Sim-Lim" building, a 5-story shopping center with nothing but electronics stores. Amazing. Most of the pictures I took here were from the Little India sector, which is older than most of modern Singapore. The pics are not representative of the rest of the city.

Anyway, then I was met by Jackie & Jim Haas, who took me to some temples. (Jackie's brother Bill Boniface is married to my cousin Leslie in Seattle.) Even though they are only "relatives" in the most liberal sense, they took me in and hosted me like I was a long-lost brother. The temples were a Buddhist one and a Hindu, both in service, but very different from any western church: no formal masses are said, people just come & go and leave offerings and pray to whatever God they want, while tourists (like me) wander between them snapping photos! Quite an experience.
Then I went to the Haas's beautiful home in the suburbs and met their two terrific kids, Eli and Taylor. I don't think I've ever met two more polite, sweet children. Taylor's a gymnast and we all had a bounce on their trampoline. Then we went out to dinner on the riverfront and took a short cruise afterwards, seeing the historic old British buildings compete for attention with the giant Ferris Wheel that seems to be the new thing for cities these days. Then it was home for a wonderful sleep in their guest room, complete with its own bath.
The next day I was kindly shown how to use the bus & train system by Ema, their housekeeper and au pair extraordinaire, (as the Haas's were all at the American School where both parents teach), and I left the island and went across the channel into Johor, Malaysia. I had arranged to meet Raymond Wee, the founder of Noah's Ark Animal Sanctuary. Raymond is to Malaysia what Lek was to Thailand: a leading force for modern, humane solutions to their countries' animal problems. Raymond has taken on the huge task of changing the way the people (especially the government) deal with stray dogs, cats and other animals. The traditional method is periodic "culling" (a polite way of saying "killing"), with no thought to build shelters, educate people, or initiate any kind of spay/neuter program. Raymond aims to change all that, chiefly by leading by example. A self-taught veterinarian, he has single-handedly founded spay and neuter programs in several parts of the country and travels back and forth doing the procedures mostly by himself. The local vets, according to him, are mainly interested in making money, and rarely help in the mundane population control surgeries. One gives him discounts, and he can send the more complicated cases to some others, but he does a lot himself!
He first took me to his main Noah's Ark sanctuary, not far from Singapore, where he houses, along with some rescued horses, about 750 dogs and 500 cats. It sounds incredible that anyone could humanely accomplish this, but somehow Raymond does with the help of a staff of trained assistants who work tirelessly to clean the place and keep all the animals fed and cared for. He showed me isolation kennels for newcomers, a huge cat house (due to be moved & expanded soon), a clinic, stables, and a nice treehouse-like habitat where guests can stay along with him and a few of the luckier cats.
Most of the dogs are free to roam and socialize within the sanctuary... and they love it! The range of breeds was vast-- I think every breed of dog was represented, from plucky little dachshunds to big friendly Danes and a lazy old St. Bernard. But mostly they were just mutts, rescued from the brutality of street life. Many were missing limbs or showed other signs of abuse, but all seemed happy there. They even have a kind of moat they can wade in, and lots of them did, clearly enjoying it! And the way they followed Raymond around they clearly adored him.
I made a lot of new friends myself... a few special dogs in particular, including a three-legged mix who stayed by my side when the others of a particular "pack" held back as I moved between different group's territories. A behavioral scientist could write a Ph.D. on the way the packs interacted and defended certain areas and somehow all got along in spite of their great numbers. Raymond also rescues horses, most from the hard life of racing, which have been discarded when they become damaged from bad management practices. (The horses give all they have when racing, then when they develop tendonitis, laminitis or other ailments, the rich owners sell them for horsemeat. It's an ugly industry and I hope nobody reading this supports it or goes to horse races.)

Visiting the cat house was a treat... the cats also have plenty of room to lounge, socialize, and observe the dogs from a safe place. Notice the two dogs in the background scheming for ways to get in!
Later, wading through dozens of dogs to get to the shower took me quite a while, because they all vied for attention and I had to pet each one. My clean shorts I put on the next morning were dirty within minutes from all the eager paws on them!

Then Raymond took me deeper into Malaysia, where I could see how the oil palms were replacing the forests as a way for the country to produce energy. It was sad to see so many hills and fields no longer wild with native forest. But every country has to make sacrifices, I suppose. Anyway Raymond has another little clinic in the town of Muar, still in the large state of Johor but two hours north of Singapore. He has a network of volunteers who bring in stray cats from the streets for spaying and neutering. He even let me do a few of the neuters! I was pretty nervous, as I had never gotten a chance to do them back home, but he was a good teacher and before long I was doing them pretty well.

Raymond is an excellent veterinarian, even if he didn't go to school for it. I saw him diagnose several animals just by looking at them, knowing their history, and having a very good feel for veterinary medicine.
He's also an excellent host, and insisted on treating me to some really tasty Malaysian food. Knowing that I'm a vegetarian, he took me to places that served all kinds of seafood. He even took me to a local shopping mall when I mentioned I needed some new tennis shoes.

We also stopped by a road where dozens of macaques come out of the forest to beg for food from passing motorists, a lot of whom now stop and hand-feed them. I probably shouldn't have, but I just couldn't resist the novelty of it. Something like that would never be allowed in the States!

Well, I have to go catch my flight to Istanbul now, so I'll be out of touch for a while, but I hope I've given you something to read meanwhile. See ya in Turkey, then on to the rest of Europe!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Crazy Japan

Wow, Japan! What a busy, teeming mix of old and new. The airport is so far away from Tokyo it's surrounded by rice paddies. When I flew in I splurged for a taxi to take me to the hostel; I wanted to take on the challenge of the infamous Tokyo subway, but not on first arrival with luggage, at night, when I had never set foot in the place. Even the cab driver, armed with my hostel's address and a little map, still had trouble finding it in the maze of twisted, unnamed streets and warrens.
Yes, suprisingly enough, most Japanese streets have no name, and a compicated numbering system. Example: here's the hostel's address: Homeikan hostel, 10-5 Hongo, 5-Chome, Bunkyo-Ku, Tokyo. Anyway, he finally found it and it turned out to be a traditional, old-fashioned Japanese guesthouse where you take your shoes off at the door (they give you little slippers) and the rooms have sliding doors and futons and little tables that you kneel up to. Very traditional. I took a quick walk around the neighborhood then called it a night.

The next day was my one full day for sightseeing, and the choices for a huge city like Tokyo were almost overwhelming. I first attacked the dreaded metro, which was not quite as bad as I thought. Some signs had English names for stations, which is the most critical. The rest I figured out by asking questions and reading signs and maps. I found the Japanese to be friendly and helpful. Even the crustiest old attendant or station guard seemed to know enough English to point me in the right direction. "Go revel three, turn light, track two". I had to quickly learn to translate that funny mixup they have with their L's and R's.

I should have taken some better photos of the subway stations, but I took one of a bunch of schoolkids waiting for their train-- their teachers must have told them all to sit down! And one of a woman in a kimono, and wearing one of those surgical masks that lots of people here wear, for the pollution. Later I spotted a policeman wearing one and snapped this shot. I also took a photo of a Japanese fire truck for Jim to see.

I wanted to see that area of Tokyo that you always see in pictures, that looks like New York's Times Square with the huge neon billboards and the punk teens dressed in outrageous styles. I wasn't quite sure where it was, but started by going to the core of the city, Tokyo Station, which was also next to the Imperial Palace. The station was crazy! It just went on and on, with shops, branching passages,bustling commuters,even a homeless old Japanese guy or two. But once out of there it was a normal downtown, with a pretty square complete with cherry blossoms. The palace, it turns out, is not open to the public, but there was lots to see anyway. I spent some time tracking down the Tourist Office by going through an interesting crescent-shaped building (pictured). The friendly ladies in the office gave me maps and good directions. I spent the rest of the day taking the subway to several different areas and exploring.
I didn't go to Tokyo tower; just about every large city has its obligatory tower with viewing area for tourists, but I've found that most cities look pretty much the same from these high-dollar eyries. I usually prefer to mingle with the crowds on the street, wander through back alleys or along the waterfront. I also missed out on the famous Tokyo fish market, an early morning feast for the senses. But after over two months of continuous traveling, I've stopped trying to see everything, and just enjoy myself. Hey, if it's that good, I'll just have to come back, right?
The next day I made my way back to Tokyo Station with my luggage to catch the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto. It is supposed to be the least-changed large city in Japan, largely unaffected by allied bombing. The parts I saw were still disappointingly modern, but I must admit I didn't see a whole lot as it was cold and rainy almost the whole time I was there, I was tired, and I had a great, cozy little hotel room that just made me want to stay in and catch up on some email, blogging and reading. It even had a short, deep bathtub that was more like the Japanese hot tub-like baths than a western one. In fact Wayne would be interested to see the bathroom, as it was molded almost all out of one piece of plastic--very efficient. TV was out of the question as there were no English-speaking channels, not even CNN or BBC, usually available everywhere. They played "Ocean's Thirteen" over and over, but dubbed. It was strange hearing George Cloony and Brad Pitt speaking Japanese, but the music was good so I had it on for about six showings-- I think I have it memorized, even in Japanese!
I know, someone's going to probably say, "Dave, you missed out on some great sights!" But sometimes you just have to rest! I did go out a few times and look in some food stores, but felt like a real foreigner when I realized I didn't know what anything was that I was looking at! I mean, look at the photo: how would you know what's good?? I took several other shots as well, all of them as mysterious as this. I'm afraid I fell back to having junk food like cookies and crackers and such, alhough at least I did try the Japanese versions.
So I left Kyoto the way I came, on the incredibly fast train that fairly flies on rails, back to Tokyo for one more night. I saw more of that metropolis, including finally getting to the Rippong district (the Times Square of Tokyo) but I didn't see many crazy teen fashions, but it was a bit rainy so maybe they stayed in. I did however wind up getting some fantastic shashimi and sushi. It's expensive even there, (as is everything else) but I had to try it. I had some trouble with the chopsticks, but was too proud to ask for silverware, so sometimes the sushi fell apart and sometimes I just used my hands. I got a few odd looks, but the fish fairly melted in my mouth, so I didn't care much!.
Then, craving something western, I stumbled upon an Irish pub, and decided to see how the Guinness was in Japan (a bit bland, to tell the truth). But I met a foin Oirish lad named Sean who was enjoying a night out without his Japanese wife, and we shared many travel tales along with a few pints. The prices were steep (about ten dollars a beer!), so I didn't get too many.
Then it was time to go, and I slugged my way one last time through the metro back to the airport, and can now officially say I have conquered the Tokyo subway-- and compared to that, ANY underground will be easy! Paris? No problem! Istanbul? Piece of cake! Speaking of that, I'll be there soon, but first I have to write about Singapore. See ya there!
PS One curiosity: the public men's rooms in Japan all have "western" style toilets and "Japanese style" ones, a little trough in the floor that looks like a miniature bathtub. Why in God's name anyone would want to squat when they can sit is beyond me, but what'reyagonna do? (I don't know about the women's rooms. Anyone? C.A.?)

Next: See ya in Singapore!