Saturday, August 10, 2013

The girl at the waterpark

As we handed over 20 lira each at the ticket booth for the waterpark in eastern Turkey, the thought struck me: Will I be the only woman here? Will I be the only woman here in a two-piece? How about in a skimpy string bikini?

And then I thought, ‘Screw it. We’re here. It’s hot (108 degrees Fahrenheit, like walking in the blast of a supersize hair dryer), and I don’t have another swim suit.’

As we walked into the waterpark near Mardin in far eastern Turkey, the Kurdish heart of the country, I could sense the precise moment when Flounder realized what I had just suspected. There were boys, teenagers, young men everywhere. I glimpsed one woman supervising her toddler son as he splashed in the shallow kiddie area, but she was fully, and modestly, clothed.

I could write that I felt self-conscious as I emerged from the dressing room with just my blue plaid wrap and tie dyed bikini, but that would be disingenuous. The emotion is better identified as defiance. I defied anyone to harass me, I defied anyone to interfere with my fun. It was hot (in Mardin our newly washed laundry dried in less than 30 minutes), I had just paid 20 lira, and I was staring at no less than four water slides. We had been staying on the top story of an apartment building with no air conditioning (fair enough) and no fan either (wtf?!). I had been sweating for days and taking a shower every 20 minutes in a mostly vain attempt to not murder Flounder in a fit of heat rage. [Spoiler alert: As of January 2014, I still haven’t murdered him.]
View from Mardin over the Mesopotamian Plains

What I’m getting at is that I was going to enjoy the hell out of this waterpark and I triple dog dared anyone to try to interfere.

As a female traveler used to wandering alone, I’ve developed something of a blind spot for staring. Flounder notices when I show my knees (my sexy, sexy knees) or elbows (equally sexy) and how many passersby gawk at me. I don’t see that anymore.

But in this waterpark, full of about 100 hormonal young men, it was impossible to ignore. I was followed with dozens of pairs of eyes. When I emerged from the water to retrieve a tube to slide back down on, a couple young male hands reached out and offered me their best inflated tubes. When I walked, gifted inner tube in hand, up the concrete stairs five or six boys followed me, chattering about me in Turkish.

‘Does abla speak Turkish?’ I heard them ask each other.

‘You are very beautiful!’ they murmured behind me.

I caught snippets of other, cheekier, sentences. But my entourage was overall a polite one. They kept their distance, assisted by the buffer that Flounder enforced behind me. And they kept offering me inner tubes, despite an acknowledged shortage. They were sweet and funny and respectful, as long as your version of respectful allows for lots of staring, chattering, and makes allowances for cultural differences.

It wasn’t until we moved into the shade near the waterpark’s lone swimming pool that the feared-for interference started. I lounged by the pool, writing in my journal, occasionally dipping into the pool when the heat overcame me. And when I removed my wrap and jumped into the water, men in uniformed swim trunks approached Flounder and tried to engage him in conversation. I thought they were making small talk, but he seemed convinced that they had been speaking about me and my attire. As soon as I covered again with my wrap, they said one of the few English words they knew, okay, and backed off.

‘Can you listen next time?’ Flounder asked. ‘I couldn’t understand what they were saying.’

‘If they want to talk to me, they can talk to me,’ I said, refusing to budge on the issue.

When I took off my wrap to jump in the pool, again the uniformed swim trunk men came over to Flounder. I came back in the middle of their conversation and had I wanted to listen and understand, I could have. But I didn’t. Have a problem with my behavior? Speak to me about it.

As soon as I put my wrap half on, they seemed a bit placated and indicated that everything was okay.

‘They don’t want you to go into the pool or take your wrap off,’ said Flounder.

‘They can kiss my ass,’ I said diplomatically. ‘I’m going to swim if I want to and if they don’t like what I’m wearing then they’ll have to kick me out.’

I took off my wrap and walked around the waterpark, accepting inner tubes from my entourage, splashing down water slides. And the part of me, the writer trapped inside, wanted the uniformed swim trunks to kick me out. What a story that would make! You see, to me, getting an interesting or funny story sometimes trumps having a good, but mundane, experience.

To my writer’s regret and my boyfriend’s relief, no one kicked us out. That is, no one kicked us out until the waterpark closed and everyone was asked to leave. Then we headed to our temporary home through the stifling Mesopotamian air, grateful for our temporary respite from the heat.

Monday, August 5, 2013

I’d like a job with the Armenian Tourism Board, please

‘Everyone is trying to rip us off,’ Flounder told me after returning from a trip to Lake Sevan in central Armenia.

I understood why he felt that way about our brief stay so far in Armenia. We had been overcharged by two, likely three, taxi drivers; overcharged at two restaurants (one of which had attempted to charge a 20% service fee instead of the standard 10%); and we had been trailed by a rogue car-cum-taxi with tinted windows and two dudes who gave us the willies. We were staying in a hotel that had seen its prime in the Soviet era and hadn’t really bothered to update since then. When we arrived, ready for a therapeutic rest, we discovered that none of the hotel’s amenities were gratis. The swimming pool? Empty. The hot tub? Pay by the hour. The weight room? Pay by the hour. The indoor swimming pool? Possibly empty, definitely pay by the hour.
Our weird soviet ski resort
Hitchhiking saved the trip.

Flounder waits for a ride
From our first ride (with two bank managers, one of whom had picked wildflowers for his wife and asked us to please not crush them, both of whom gave us their cards and implored us to call them if we needed any help in Armenia) to our last ride (with two teenage boys in a BMW SUV who barely spoke a word, instead blasted dance music with the windows rolled down and handed us cold drinks as they drove to the Georgian border) we experienced hospitality, curiosity, warmth, and gratitude during our two weeks in Armenia.
Flounder walks along a highway in Armenia. We're looking for our next ride
Yes, we regularly experienced gratitude from the people who were giving us free rides. They were thankful we were traveling in Armenia and happy to hear us genuinely gush about their country.

There’s a commonly accepted truism among hitchhikers that the nice cars rarely stop, that the people with the most to give are the least generous. Armenia turned this truism on its head. Nice, new, expensive cars regularly stopped for us. People with good jobs and disposable incomes went out of their way to help us, to invite us into their homes, and to pay for our meals. (One couple who picked us up even became a bit offended when we tried to pay for our own fruit and, later, for our own campsite.)
This car was held together with tape and a lot of MacGyver-style ingenuity
During one of our rides in Armenia, when we passed a caravanserai along the Silk Road, perched on a steep and lush green mountain pass, Flounder turned to me. ‘Why isn’t Armenia more popular with tourists? I can’t believe it isn’t better known.’

I agree. The country, besides having an abundance of warm and proud people, has a variety of landscapes, more thousand-year-old monasteries that a person can hope to visit, a distinct culture and language, along with stunning natural beauty and delicious food.
Lake Sevan
It suffers from what I am just now coining the not-in-Europe syndrome.

So although we saw lush green mountains, arid desert punctuated by the dramatically situated glowing gold-red Noravank monastery, groves of apricots (latin name: prunus armeniaca), camped on the banks of a 2,000-meter-high lake, watched beautiful women strut down the streets of Yerevan, camped at the long foot of the Biblical Mount Ararat, and gathered with peaceful Rainbow Warriors after an hour-long hike steeply into the mountains, we also saw very few tourists at any of these places.
We celebrate a rainbow at the Peace in the Middle East Rainbow Gathering
Why is this? Simple. Armenia is not in Europe. (And in case you were wondering, neither are Georgia and Turkey, though both are as deserving of tourism as Barcelona, Venice, Paris.)
Noravank Monastery
One of the constants among our many drivers in Armenia, from the retired couple in a cream leather, roomy SUV who invited us to stay with them to the three men on their way from work in a car that was barely hanging together with duct tape and wires, was this question: ‘How do you like Armenia?’

There is only one correct answer to this question and luckily it is the one, unbidden, that we wanted to give: ‘Armenia is so beautiful! We love it!’

Sunday, August 4, 2013

We know where you're sleeping... Camping in the shadow of Mount Ararat and Khor Virap

We saw the headlights in the darkness and heard the crunch of gravel under the wheels. A car was approaching our campsite. I ran down the list in my head of people who knew we were sleeping here, in the shadow of Khor Virap monastery at the Armenian border with Turkey, as Flounder and I ran back toward our tent. We zipped ourselves into the tent just as we heard a car door open and slam shut.
Khor Virap at night
Two of the site’s caretakers knew we were camping here. The thought was not comforting, as one of them was developmentally disabled and had wanted to hold my hand more than was socially acceptable while the other had pointed to his elbow pit and made a symbol that looked remarkably like inserting a needle there. They had insisted we come back with them and sleep there, likely a purely hospitable gesture, except that they had tried to charge us more money than seemed reasonable to camp on the monastery’s grounds in the first place.

Flounder unzipped the tent enough to peek out of it. He held his multi tool with its two-inch knife while I crouched behind him, unable to see what was happening. I felt a bit shaky and a bit sick. Would they rob us, rape me, or both?

‘What’s happening?’ I whispered to him.

‘I can’t really see,’ he said.
Stormy sky
The moon was nearly full, but the sky was stormy and cloudy. An occasional burst of lightning illuminated the ancient monastery (the site was over 1500 years old) and the few trees around us. The wind, stronger than I had yet felt it, whipped at our tent bending the flexible tent poles so much I thought they would break.

‘I think they’re just tourists,’ Floundered whispered, ‘taking pictures of Khor Virap.’
Khor Virap in the daytime
Whoever they were, they hadn’t come near our tent, but they hadn’t left either. Flounder was steady; I was not. I put my hand on his shoulder and his warm flesh and tight muscles under my hand calmed me.

Why was it that I had wanted to camp here despite Flounder’s misgivings about the site’s caretakers? Doing so went exactly against my two camping rules: (1) Camp in secret. Make sure no one knows where your site is OR (2) Camp in a proper campsite with other campers around, with management and infrastructure.

What exactly were my guidelines (based on experience and common sense) for, if I chose not to follow them? I wondered this, not in fully formed sentences, but in bursts of words and feelings and fear as I held Flounder’s shoulder and he peeked into the dark night around us.

After ten minutes or five or two, I heard the cars doors slam again and the engine start. With the crunch of gravel I relaxed.

The night was stormy. Lightning surrounded us; it lit the sky on all sides of us. Rain poured down and wind shook the tent, but I slept through it all, slept more soundly than I could have predicted.

In the darkness, I promised myself I would follow my guidelines from now on. Isn’t that what they are there for? But in the morning, I awoke at the long foot of Mount Ararat, in the shadow of Khor Virap and I forgot the night’s fear.
View from Khor Virap
Instead I looked at the Biblical mountain (site of Noah’s Ark), the symbolic mountain (on the coat of arms of Armenia), the revered mountain (said to be the site of the gods), and the night faded away like the storm’s remnants had evaporated into the arid air.
Mount Ararat
And my promises to be more careful faded away too. I would do it again. I’m camping at the foot of one of the holiest sites in Armenia; picnicking with an Armenian family who share their food with us so casually, so matter-of-factly; practicing my Armenian with the taxi driver who picks us up for free and takes us away from Khor Virap and Mount Ararat. I would do it again.