Turkey Police want to Friend you on FacebookIstanbull

By Doug Hitchcock & Mark Jenkins

While sitting in the holding cell at Ataturk airport jail, we watched every man on the force update his Facebook status two or three times an hour. We couldn’t see what was so interesting, but it was probably just the language barrier …

Yep, we spent three action packed and fun filled days in a Turkish jail, experiencing the greatest incompetency and disorganization of the Turkish legal system and meeting the kindest and most gracious people along the way. We will always recall the elegant Turkish business man who lent us his attorney to get us out and the perky Russian prostitute, Nilu, who interpreted English to Russian and her co-worker who translated the Russian to Turkish for us.

Someone in the prison system has been reading American decorating magazines, as our jail cell was finished in a perky sunshine yellow with mint green trim, which we admired when the lights were on, the one time they were on. Plush boards on the floor were provided for our lounging comfort, with the thrilling company of small forms of vermin. We also appreciated their attempts at cuisine, a small rotten apple on the second day. Water was served from a five gallon jug, which we checked to be certain it hadn’t been used as a urinal. There was no bathroom facility.

We met some interesting people – some already mentioned, but also the contractor who was arrested because of three bottles of champagne (We offered to help him hide the evidence) or the man detained due to a box of American Marlboro’s. There was a family with a young girl just learning to walk and we were the exciting Americans.Enjoying the beautiful Sea

You’re probably wondering by now how this came about. For our birthdays this year, we planned a European holiday of cruising the Greek islands by yacht, a few days in Istanbul and wrapping up in Paris. (We never had Paris). The water surrounding the Greek islands is stunning – shades of blue that cannot even be named – some very light and delicate to the deepest, moodiest blues that are almost black. The yacht, Etesian, is a 38’ catamaran that was intimate with six of us, but providing plenty of room to stretch out. We improved our tans (no tan lines for this crowd!), admired the scenery on and off board while sailing calm waters and enjoying native delicacies.

Our first port was Rhodes, an ancient city in Greece with Ottoman and Crusader influences. The town has many beautiful villas waiting to be rescued from ruin by a determined and respectful owner and a little water for the gardens. We were docked steps from where the ancient Colossus of Rhodes was situated 3000 years ago. The ancient fortress and castle no longer protect the old town from the marauding hordes, but welcome them in to shop. The stonework is amazingly preserved for being in routine use – roads, walls, pebble mosaic terraces laid in two-toned geometric patterns abound.

The next port was Symi, a former sponge fishing town and extraordinary sight. Before imitation sponges, it had been a very wealthy outpost and market village for the natural sponge industry. The deep harbor is clear enough to see the bottom sixty feet down and to watch the fish. The pastel houses, resembling miniature palaces, surrounded the harbor on the steep hillsides. Most inner streets are wide stairs leading from shelf of homes to the next shelf of homes, with café’s spread throughout. The views amazed us in every direction, whether overlooking the harbor or gazing up the hill. Vivid bougainvillea covered most arbors providing cool shade to relax with a beer – one sip of ouzo was enough for both of us! A yachting club from Chicago was alongside in port and helped celebrate Doug’s birthday with songs and sparklers.

An amazing yacht, the Red Dragon, would magically appear throughout the journey. We initially saw this tremendous polished and gleaming vessel at port in Rhodes and were very impressed with her graceful lines hiding her nearly 200’ length. What else would you expect from Baron Ullen, owner of Weight Watchers?

The third port was Nisoro, which had its own stark beauty. The entire and I mean ENTIRE island was terraced and backfilled in ancient Greek times for grain production. It’s very steep and mountainous and didn’t seem to be productive to modern eyes. The villages and windmills for grinding flour are along the topmost ridges, but the shipping quays are near the water with close to a thousand feet in elevation separating them. We rented scooters to tour this island, which is best known for continuing geothermal activity similar to Lassen Park. It seemed more quintessentially Greek with whitewashed villages and residents playing backgammon at the taverns. There are small roadside shrines everywhere with icons and mason jars filled with votives. The military is prominent on this island and photography is restricted.

Kos was our next port, where we berthed in a very modern marina. The promenade had a feeling very similar to Waikiki. This resort town is well known by European vacationers and has a vibrant, festive atmosphere with bars, clubs and restaurants. The old harbor is downplayed except for the size of the large charter fleet. It even had a gay bar, we were the only patrons.In Greece

We were in Bodrun, Turkey, the next day after a short sail on choppy water. A massive castle flying an immense Turkish flag greeted us, along with very friendly Turkish yachters curious why Americans were in Bodrun, of all places. Confusion about our entry stamps occurred here that only compounded the next week. We were introduced to the Turkish driving style. The only rule is “there are no rules”. Lanes are a suggestion, signs are ignored and horns are more effective than turn signals.

Istanbul opened all her faces to us during our stay. We experienced the power and grace of the Ottoman Empire, the generosity of her inhabitants and visited many neighborhoods to balance culture with Culture. The food is subtly spiced with woody flavors such as cinnamon, the breads fresh daily with delightful texture and taste and the wine non-existent. The proprietors of the shops and restaurants were beyond friendly hoping to earn your patronage. Mark surprised one rug shop owner by saying he didn’t want to see the rugs, but just wanted to play with the mascot orange kitten. The fresh butcher shop under the hotel was savagely tasteful, lush red flesh against gleaming white tile.

We stayed in the heart of the Sultanhamet district and recommend the gay-friendly Hotel Nomade, due to its small size (16 rooms); tasteful quarters with wifi, modern plumbing, Continental breakfast and street views; and the rooftop terrace overlooking the Hagia Sophia to the left and the Blue Mosque to the right. Service everywhere was attentive and friendly, but the Nomade has a better chef than our other hotel next door.

During our stay we hit the tourist sites – both important Sultanhamet mosques, Topkapi Palace, the Basilica Cistern, the Cemberlitas Hamam,(Turkish bath house) the Grand and Spice Bazaars and the Galata Tower. Hagia Sophia seemed tremendously spiritual in its deterioration. There are no stairs to take you to the upper floor but a set stone ramp slick and polished from 1500 years of footsteps. The Byzantine mosaics are currently being restored, though the gold seems as brilliant today as it must have been in 583 AD. The Blue Mosque was disappointing in that its grandeur was hidden by the hordes traipsing through. Sophia seems to have retained dignity through all its degradation, while the Blue Mosque seemed very commercial for such a holy site.

The Turkish people take a great interest and pride in appearance. All the men are clean cut with recent shaves and haircuts and tattoos are a rarity. The women are very attractive and stylish. Mark gained a new appreciation for Mediterranean men that he didn’t know he had. For fun, we stopped at a barbershop for a professional shave with a straight razor. Mark wanted his hair cut, and then Doug opted for one, too. We both had very professional attentive barbers who practically cut each hair individually, plus massaged shoulders, cracked our necks, singed our ear hair with a cigarette lighter (very exciting) and trimmed mustaches and eyebrows. This was followed by generous applications of a lightly scented bodyspray and aftershave.

Later, we went to the hamam for an authentic Turkish bath. It you like it hot and steamy, this is the place for you. You change into a towel wrap – nudity is forbidden – and lay on a giant steaming marble slab along with twelve to twenty of your newest closest friends. You lay and relax and feel the sweat drip from you almost immediately. An attendant comes shortly to scrub your body with a loofa mitt, wiping away sweat and dead skin. It is very invigorating and that’s before he pours a bucket of water on you. After this quick rinse, he grabs a cloth resembling a pillow case, dipped in soapy water, which he wrings out and then rubs soap all over your body. This is then followed by more pails of clean water poured on you and then a quick shower. You may go back out to the slab if you wish. Doug opted for an oil massage that was more of a pressure point technique, sometime painful but it did the trick. He came out relaxed and quite oily only to receive another washing by an attendant who kept track of his every move. Finally done we changed in our dressing room and resumed our shopping at the Bazaar refreshed.Istanbul

One major highlight was wandering the Topkapi Palace grounds and seeing the impressive jewel collection. Google this, as public photography is not allowed. Emeralds as big as a man’s fist, the Spoonmaker diamond, gold and silver thrones, and diamond encrusted gold candle holders seven feet tall are beyond description. Ottoman architecture is very fanciful, but can be restrained at the same time depending on the current Sultan’s taste. We also saw a traveling exhibit of Ottoman artefacts from the Kremlin – jewel encrusted saddles and apparel, fine porcelains and exquisite metalwork.

Both the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar should be experienced. They cater to shoppers, though most products are beyond the economic means of the majority of locals. You will find mainly jewels, furs and leathers, antiques and tourist crap at the Grand Bazaar. If you move more to outer portions, you will discover local shoppers purchasing apparel and textiles. Everyone wears designer knock-offs and it is not unusual to see a Hilfiger, Klein, and YSL label on the same article. The Spice Bazaar retains a few spice merchants who are happy to exhibit and discuss their products, but unless one plans to use copious amounts immediately, we suggest purchasing your spices at the market. Do not pass this up as a visual and olfactoral event. Envision piles of saffron, kegs of peppercorns in all seven colors, and cordwood piles of cinnamon.

Galata Tower was the tallest edifice for centuries and served as a guard tower by various regimes and an astronomical observatory. Built of stone, it provides a 360 degree view over modern n and ancient Istanbul, the Bosporus and the Golden Horn. The Basilica Cistern appears to be a hilltop with a park over it, but underneath you can see why it is called an underground palace. Built in Roman times from recycled materials, columns lined up support a vaulted roof for close to an acre. It is a mysterious manmade cavern with artistic uplights and moody music to enhance the vision.

The public transport system is efficient and inexpensive, which is probably the last time we would say that about our Turkish experience.

While attempting to depart for Paris, we were informed our passports were out of order. Watching our tickets being stamped “Cancelled” sickened us immediately, compounded by passport confiscation and police escort through the innards of Ataturk airport. Police opinions and options for us changed hourly – would be allowed to continue to Paris, would we go to the States, would be in the jail? Poor communication, ineptness and general stupidity rule the police office. Everything must be carried out to procedure. The concept of deporting someone who wants to leave the country is the pinnacle of sense to them, while purchasing a ticket today for tomorrow’s departure was deranged. A piece of paper would be handed around the room five or six times just to see if the writing had changed. Including the other detainees, there was more luggage stacked around the station than at the baggage claim.Istanbull

Turkey has won many prizes for human rights, which is why we were escorted to the hospital to report we hadn’t been beaten or mistreated. (That would probably come later, but didn’t.) Told to strip to underwear for examination, the doctor got an eyeful when he discovered these Americans prefer to go commando. Mark’s nipple ring sent them over the edge and the doctor had to close his door due to nervous prostration. Additionally, our shoe strings and belts were confiscated so there would be no suicide danger…..

The American Consul was little help – “this happens all the time; it’s your fault; you’ll be out tomorrow.” You can only be out tomorrow if someone at the consul wrote down you were in jail to begin with…. Mark quickly discovered that crossing his arms and sitting resolutely while declaring “American citizen” started some trouble, it didn’t keep them from jail. The first night in the basement behind bars with no food, water or light and two obnoxious cellmates attempting to converse in Arabic-Italian-Turkish-Spanish-Esperanto is something neither of us wish to repeat. The clanging of that metal door sounded so final, even before it echoed off the concrete walls and floor. There were blankets provided, but they weren’t even god enough to be used for saddles, though they smelled like it and other aromas.

After a fitful night’s sleep, we had a delightful wild goose chase at the airport and irate phone calls to the embassy that let off steam more than accomplished anything. The police, (do you think the Wizard will give them a brain – to share) couldn’t understand that when an airplane departs at 9:00am, you can’t arrive at the airport at 1:00 pm and leave. The idea of buying a ticket for the next day truly confused the escorting officer and frustrated the kind ticket agent trying to help us.

Back at the jail, we were sent back to the holding cell and “enjoyed” our notoriety as “the Americans”. The officers repeated our story, almost individually, if there was a group of five or six listening- and then they would pass a paper around. We quickly got acquainted with the other enemies of the state we were with – the man allowed two bottles of wine, who brought five; the man reported to the border police by a creditor for owing a miniscule amount of money; the one year old girl learning to walk; the Australian resident who missed his Turkish military conscription. One man did have narcotics and we never saw him again…..

Our second night was “lucky” – we were offered a loaf of bread, two rotten apples and used plastic cup for drinking water. Not even a quality plastic cup – it was akin to drinking from a female condom, so pleasant for gay men. We’ll be trying this at this summer’s parties. The whole crowd slept in the holding cell, where we had fresh newspaper to spread over the offensive blankets and light all night long. While encouraged we were not the only ones in jail, it was saddening to see how many were in jail for circumstances rather than crimes.

Through this all, we kept abreast of the world by watching the officers update their Facebook pages and view Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” in Turkish…..

Finally, finally, finally, we were able to board an airplane at the proper time with our forced purchased tickets. Yes, you have to pay for your own deportation or risk spending three months in jail AND you can only fly Turkish Air, which we highly recommend. Economy class is better than most American first classes, with spacious seats, two full meals with wine served by a uniformed chef, up to date movies and TV programs, and available phone and email services.

The trip was wonderful, all things considered. It brought new perspectives – we’ll never complain about work again and no one can accuse us of being delicate flowers – and demonstrated the inherent kindnesses of people in situations beyond anyone’s control and willing to help others with them.

Next trip we will see the Paris we did not this time. Our trip cut short by a week, we are excited to see home and have dinner parties with themes of black and white stripes with shish kebab. We laugh thinking about our experiences and look upon them as educational and thought provoking. We had long discussions about the deportation laws of Arizona and now have an entirely different perspective. We obviously would change a few things about our experience, but found the Turkish people kind. They are able to take customer service to levels that Americans cannot fathom. Go see Turkiye; enjoy, but make sure you have your paperwork in order.

 

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