Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From Face to Face

One of my favourite restaurants in New York is in my old neighbourhood of Hell’s Kitchen.  On 9th Avenue around 45th street (it’s been 5 years since we lived in NY, so my exact cross street knowledge is a little hazy), there is an aptly-named haunt called Turkish Cuisine.  Several birthday parties and subsequent visits back to the city have taken place there.  Usually, I insisted on the entire table (ranging from 2 diners up to 17) order “a lot of everything to be shared.”  Communal dining is a must in certain establishments and this is one of those places.  The restaurant is decorated with hundreds (potentially thousands) of Turkish lucky eyes, or "nazar boncuğu," on the walls, embedded in the tables, on the drapes, etc.  The cuisine is deliciously (well…) Turkish with some embellishments thrown in there to please the tourists who have stumbled west off of the Times Square drag (tiramisu, American coffee, spaghetti) and on a warm night, there’s even a back patio to lounge away the hours, eating sigara böreği and drinking apple tea.  

Admittedly, one of my favourite parts of the restaurant was one server who worked there during my tenure in New York.  She was a striking woman whose formality, as a regular, puzzled me – I enjoy being a regular customer at local cafes, stores, post offices, bodegas, etc. and pride myself on being able to connect with the employees again and again, alas, she stumped me and never broke her formality during the 5 years I frequented the restaurant.  I joked some and every time said something like, “Lovely to see you again,” but she stoically, yet pleasantly took our order and never cracked.  She wasn’t rude, but rather untouchable.  I never took offense to her mannerisms, rather, she became a fascination.  She was, as I mentioned, stunning, so one was naturally drawn to her, but also efficient in such a way that even when one or more of us tripped over the pronunciation of a Turkish goodie or spilled a drink she never broke character and operated in such a way that suggested she’d anticipated our foible.  As we approached our visit to Turkey, I couldn’t help by wonder if, by association, the faces of Istanbul would have the same effect as my mysterious server.  

One of my favourite sports, as some have called it, is people-watching.  Every place we’ve visited on this trip has included some degree of daily people-watching.  I try not to stare.  I try to be subtle.  I usually succeed, but there has been the rare occasion when I look too long (i.e., sitting opposite someone one a train) or in an inappropriate location (i.e., a woman praying at a mosque).  Wanting to write a blog about this travel pastime,  I asked Steve to be my master photographer of this curiosity, especially since I had been so thoroughly enjoying the faces I’d seen so far in Istanbul: men selling street food next to the people fishing in the Bospherus, young modern women with elaborately decorated head scarves, sharply dressed businessmen in custom-tailored suits, children too young yet for traditional Islamic dress, older gents sitting around drinking Turkish coffee and playing backgammon, highly-made up vixens running to catch the street car, three generations of spice vendors in the bazaar, Istanbul hipsters drinking tea and smoking at the hidden café outlook, etc.  Steve became my undercover cameraman and perfected the art of both drive-by photos as well as the “upside down shot.”  Holding my hand on one side and swinging the upside down camera in his other hand, he raced me through crowds to get in front of people whose images I wanted to capture and then blindly snapped the photo behind him.   Later, we needed to flip the photos on the computer (and zoom and crop and resize), but all told, we were unobtrusively able to capture images of some amazing people on the street. 

I wish we’d discovered this (sneaky) method of photography before Istanbul, since so much of our exposure to the many countries we’ve visited has been about watching the people.  Not only do you learn a lot about the culture, dress, eating habits, colour codes, family dynamics, public affection customs, average sizes, builds, hair styles, usual speed of walking, interaction with others of the same sex, opposite sex, youth, elderly, foreigners (remember India?), but also you come to realize that each face is fascinating and quite beautiful in its own way.  I’ve ogled so many eyes, brows, smiles, wrinkles, hair styles, piercings, noses, that I have no concept of beauty anymore since everyone seems, in their own way, uniquely gorgeous.  Strip away the clothes and hair and each face in the world is incredible to look at.  Also, many faces are the same – and I’m not talking about the typical Balinesian eye shape or the average Israeli’s colouring – I mean we’ve seen so many of our friends and loved ones in the faces of the people in the world that I’ve realized there are really only so many shapes and contours that the human face can take on before you find yourself face to face your childhood friend’s doppleganger in a back alley café in Nepal!   

For your additional viewing pleasure, I invite you to pour yourself a cup of coffee/tea and join us at a café on Refik Saydam Cad (street) in Istanbul for some people watching.  The real thing couldn’t be beat – people of all colours, shapes, attitudes, and gaits wandering by and even, on occasion, glancing in at us – but in the meantime, it’s nice to share some video footage with you of the people who inhabit this city of antiquity, elegance, and mystery.  

Steve and I recommend Istanbul highly to anyone in the mood for an exotic, yet comfortable week away in a city that spans two continents (Europe and Asia), and we hope to return again sometime…with the camera flipped both right side up and upside down.

Post-thought: I realized as I was writing this and trying to describe some of the faces we’ve seen (not such an easy thing to do, thus relying on photographs to help), that I’ve been watching our faces change over the course of this trip as well.  When you’re with a great travel buddy for 5 months, you see all sorts of changes occur in each other’s and your own faces. It’s an exciting and wacky realization! I’ve watched our faces change due to: sun exposure, fatigue, weight loss, mood related to current degree of homesickness, lighting, allergies, agreement or disagreement with the taste of food, lack of make-up (for me, people), skin dryness, presentation of information, and more.  What does your face look like today and how is it different from yesterday or an hour ago?  How will it look different tomorrow?  How about tonight in relation to this morning? Have a look…

Friday, March 25, 2011

Impressions of Jerusalem

Jerusalem - the heart of Christinity, the spiritual center of Judaism, and a focal point for Islamic prayer as the place from which Mohammed ascended to heaven. I knew intellectually that these three religions intersected, co-existed and conflicted over the 1 square mile of Jerusalem, but it really does take walking the streets to make the reality of the situation sink in. I thought I would write about a few experiences that Sarah and I had that brough this reality home for us.

While the ownership of the land that is central to one’s religion is the issue over which wars have been fought for thousands of years, it was moving and fascinating to see what that actually means to the people on the ground. Not the locals, but those that come on pilgramiges from all over the world to connect with the spiritual center of their religion. They come to lay their hands on the Western Wall, which is the last remaining wall of the Second Temple, they come to pray at the Temple of the Mount or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, or they come to lay their hands on the stone on which Jesus was lain after his cruxification.

 The first of these sites on our list was the Western Wall. The current site is only a tiny portion of the original wall, but we were lucky enough to be able to take a tour along the excavation that runs between the current houses of Jerusalem and the original stones that King Herod’s workers laid thousands of years ago. The tour comes to a spot only a hundred yards or so from the Holy of Holies, the geographical center of the Jewish religion. Here, there were a few people sitting in chairs, lost in deep prayer. 

The second of the sites for us was the Church of the Holy Selphurcure, which contains a number of relics holy to the Christian faith. Upon entering the church you come across the stone where Jesus was laid to be anointed with oils after his cruxification. People come thousands of miles to lay their hands on this rock (or in some cases bags full of scarves to take back home). There is also part of the pillar that Jesus leaned up against when he fell and the rock that supposedly was where Jesus’s cross was erected.

And finally the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque, both of which we had to view from a distance. In each of these cases, people are performing a similar ritual. In their own way, they are paying their respects to a power higher than their own, whether it be through prayer, kneeling, or prostration on the ground.  The similarlity between these actions stuck me as saying something profound about what we as humans find in our religious customs. They are humbling, they connect us with a force larger and more profound that we can even conceptualize, large enough that it can symbolize an entire ethos or the ideal way to comport one’s self in the world.

There is also a tremendous overlapping of the faiths within Jerusalem. 
For instance, upon leaving the Western Wall tunnel, we emerged in the Muslim quarter of the Old City, on the length of the Via Dolorosa where Jesus was sentenced to death. On that corner, at the edge of the Western Wall, we stood with our tour guide Ami amid the Muslim shops and contemplated that critical moment for Christianity. Then Ami brought us to a Muslim restaurant a few doors down where he spoke a few friendly words in Arabic with the owner and had a feast brought out. 

This overlap sadly is fraught with issues. There are constant reminders of the threat of violence that clouds over life in Jerusalem. Each Israeli boy and girl is required to do two years in the military upon graduating from high school, which results in a bunch of kids that look like they are on spring break but are in uniform, which includes a massive rifle. They are a constant presence by numbers all over the city. I can’t imagine someone trusting me with a huge gun and lots of responsibility when I was 18, I found working in a sandwich shop challenging enough, but here these kids are, learning a lesson about protecting their country at a very early age.

And finally, like any city, Jerusalem is a living breathing entity with as many funny quirks as they are sobering or scary moments. 

A coke can for example, tells a lot about the area of town where you are having lunch.

Tchotchke dealers are the same the world over. Always ready to turn a sporting fervour into a profitable business. (Go Sox!)

Purim, the Jewish version of Halloween, really brings out the best of a city.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

And it stoned me to my soul

Perhaps it's the time between posts that we've let pass without blogging, or maybe it's sharing our journey with other people - but I'm going to break our cardinal rule of blogging and do some highlights rather than focusing on one piece.  I'll leave the specific history lesson up to Steve (for instance, the black line shown below at Masada that designates orginal ruins versus reconstructions...but I digress).

We've now been in (and around and under and through) Israel for over a week - we've seen the token must-sees and have experienced some highlights outside of the the usual agenda of "visiting the homeland," so here's hoping you enjoy reading (and seeing) a little bit of both. 

Note:  Those two extra special folks you see in the photos with us are my parents, Jude and Pete, who trekked out to Israel to meet up with us.  We feel so lucky to have spent this time with them exploring and loving every minute of it.

1.)  Standing on 2000 year old stone: no matter what your knowledge of Israel is prior to the trip, your spiritual practice, or your footwear, standing on 2000 year old stone is an amazing experience (see photo at right).  Just being surrounded by such antiquity stunts you in time, making every ancient story come to life: controversial archeological digs (as described by our guide, "You dig down one level and you find something amazing from one century and one culture, you dig down another, you find more, but you must destroy the first level to get to the second...pretty contraversial situation you've got on your hands"), stones cut to King Herod's specifications from over 1500 years ago, posing and/or wading in thigh-deep water through tunnels actually mentioned in the Old Testament, and of course, the Western Wall.  Without launching too far into how moving it is to stand in front of the Western Wall for the first time after having seen pictures of and heard stories about it your entire life, I can comment on the amazing feeling present all around the Old City of so many people, cultures, and religions coming together to experience what they have heard about their entire lives in one single place.  What better place to experience history than with so many others feeling the historical significance with you?

2.)   Blending in with the culture: Steve and I have loved this aspect of the trip which hasn't been about becoming part of the culture by pretending we are part of the culture, but rather getting mixed up in it just by sitting at a cafe and people watching and/or doing our thing, while glancing up on occasion to observe life as it goes by. (However, I must note that even though Israel is part of the Middle East - between the metropolitan feel and, yes, my curly hair, we sure do fit in better here than in other places we've visited - like here.)  Below are some shots of our observations as well as us becoming part of the blended Israeli smoothie....or hummous....or (oh, never mind, I'll stop trying to take this "blending" analogy too far).

3.)  Doing our part to bring peace in the Middle East - for instance, by patronizing the many different quarters of the Old City...(note the before and after barber shots):

4.)  Dreaming about our contribution to Israeli society in ways that most visitors do not: for instance, by composing in our minds, a story about all of the cats that lurk around every Jerusalem corner.  I'm talking every corner.  We've been told that cats are to Jerusalem as squirrels are to New York - well, that analogy was all we needed to get us talking about a story line, main characters, illustration style, publishing house, etc.  Don't be surprised when we hit the best seller list with a book lovingly dedicated to our cats at home.  Below are some of our main characters, though they were a bit too skittish for us to catch their names (with the exception of the first one who we named Jessie because we couldn't figure out its sex).

5.)  Floating 423 meters below sea level: no trip to Israel is complete without covering thyself with mud and floating thy butt in the Dead Sea.  We partook in both commandments.

6.)  Finally, one of the highlights of our trip was having the honor to be a part of the reenactment of a significant historical discovery.  The high fortress and town of Masada was built by King Herod (well, we can assume that he sat idly by while his [ahem] workers built it for him) between 37 and 31 BCE.  About 75 years after his death, a group of Jewish "rebels" and zealots fled Jerusalem after the destruction of the first templei n 70 CE and settled high up on the Masada plateau.  The story goes that this group of Jews fended off the Romans who were trying to seige the town by way of an earth ramp for two years!  As detailed by the Jewish Virtual Library, "the defenders – almost one thousand men, women and children – led by Eleazar ben Ya’ir, decided to burn the fortress and end their own lives, rather than be taken alive. [Josephus Flavius describes] 'And so met (the Romans) with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution, and at the immovable contempt of death which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.” As pacifists, rather than reenact the breaching of the walls of Masada by the Romans and the death of the Jews, we decided to demonstrate some unsung heros in the history of Masada: Herod's pigeons.  Thousands of these pigeons lived in a coop that can now be found relatively in tact amongst the Masada ruins.  They provided meat for the residents and guests of Masada (ew) and probably fertilizer for the crops (ew again).  Below, please find photographs of some of our tableaux in honor of the birds (notice Sarah's wings and Peter's "cooing") as well as a live video in which I do an interpretive dance entitled "Herod's Coop."  The Art Director and Editor were none other than Steve P(igeon) Chasey:

And there you have it - some highlights from our amazing time in Israel thus far.  We've still a couple of days to go and, by our travel books, this country is a wifi hotspot, so I have a feeling you'll be hearing a little more from Steve than his last post (now that he's recovered by taking daily supplements of shawarma).  Signing off from near the Sea of Galilee - good night!