Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Flight Home

Friends: Though I was in transit for better than a day back to Chicago from Istanbul, with flights of three-and-a-half and eight-and-a-half hours in and out of London broken by an 18-hour lay-over, I remained in Istanbul much of the time as I read "The Museum of Innocence," a novel about Istanbul set in the late 1970s by Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk.

It is written as the memoirs of a thirty-year old wealthy businessman who falls in love with an eighteen-year old shop girl shortly before his huge engagement party to a woman of his social standing. It is a meditation not only on his heart being tugged in two directions, but on what Istanbul was like back then and how much it has changed.

Istanbul was just westernizing. Such things as blenders and electric shavers were a rare luxury. The state greatly restricted the import of alcohol and foreign cars. The Hilton Hotel was one of of the few "civilized establishments" where a man and a woman could obtain a room without being asked for a marriage certificate. Women as models was a new, but much frowned upon, profession. There was a shortage of running water, requiring even the richest neighborhoods to rely on water supplied by private trucks.

Just having spent four days in Istanbul, the mention of any of its sites or geographical features immediately gave me a familiar image to fondly recall, whether it be a bridge or body of water or mosque or neighborhood, affirming how well I had come to know the city. The book had me reliving my entire two months in Turkey, unleashing torrents of memories with the mention of Ataturk, the Feast of the Sacrifice, simits (sesame rolls), doners, headscarves, bleached blonds, the call to prayer, smoking and much much more.

The casual mention of such Turkey-true incidentals as cat-infested squares or stray dogs or tea also gave me a most personal connection to the novel. Though I was happy to be returning home, being reminded of Turkey's distinctive traits made me miss it a little bit already and had me contemplating a return.  The idea had already been planted by Zekeriya.  He had proposed joining him for a ride along the Black Sea, the northern border of the country, the one region I did not visit.  I'm always contemplating future rides. Imagining the joy of such a ride gave me a smile.

The depth and polish of "The Museum of Innocence" also had me eager to read more of Pamuk, especially his essays, and to immerse myself in more books on Turkey, especially a biography or two of Ataturk. I am particularly curious to see if other of Pamuk's books have as many off-handed references to Ataturk as  this book.  He truly portrays him as a constant presence in Turkish life.  Nothing is more ubiquitous than Ataturk in Turkey, his picture on every note of currency and his statue in every town square. No office, business, hotel, school room or home is complete without a photo of him hanging on a wall. By the evidence of "The Museum of Innocence" he spills over into the country's literature as well.

I developed a fondness for Istanbul. It is a cross roads and portal to Asia. One of the reasons I enjoyed it so much is all the touring cyclists I met who were funneling  through. I would return just to connect with them and to share in their euphoria of being well into their "trip of a lifetime." On my ten mile ride out to Istanbul's Ataturk airport along the Sea of Marmara, accompanied by the English cyclist Orlando, I kept my record in tact of meeting at least one touring cyclist a day during my time in Istanbul, even on my partial arrival and departure days.  During those six days I met thirteen in all of five nationalities.

The latest was Bjorn, a young, bushy-haired German with an absolutely radiant smile, who was just entering the city. He had a huge load, well-prepared for the wintry conditions ahead. Atop his gear was a violin. Although he was just a waif of a guy, his rear wheel from all the weight he was carrying was giving out on him and needed replacing. He was a long-time bike mechanic, so he only needed to buy a rim and spokes and would rebuild his wheel himself. We could tell him exactly where to go to find all the bike shops.

I had allowed loads of time to get to the airport, so we were able to have a good chat. Bjorn was headed to Iran and on to China. This was his second significant tour, the other a 9,000 mile ride around the circumference of Australia several years ago.

We were the first touring cyclists he had met since leaving Germany two months ago, so he couldn't stop talking. He was bubbling with the glee and satisfaction of having completed the first leg of his trip and having a couple days of rest in Istanbul.  We told him about the two other German cyclists in town who were headed the same direction as he was and gave him their email so he could track them.

Orlando chose not to enter the airport with me, as everyone had to pass through a metal detector and he hadn't brought along a lock for his bike. It was just as well, as I was down to less than three hours before my flight and I had to disassemble my bike and change clothes and set aside as many warm clothes as I could for my overnight in the cold outer lobby of Heathrow. I had overnighted there a year ago on my return from China, and knew how unaccommodating the airport was to passengers not caring to stay in a hotel for a few hours. There was no line at the check-in, as my Christmas Eve flight was just a quarter full.

The Christmas Day flight out of Heathrow was a different story though. Every seat was taken, filled by passengers who had been delayed by the snow that had closed down Heathrow earlier in the week. My seatmates were a young husband and wife and their two infants, who sat on their parents' laps when they weren't scurrying about. They were connecting from South Africa, where they had been missionaries for the past seven years. As we began to converse, I thought I couldn't have had more interesting seatmates. It didn't look like I was going to get much reading done on this segment of my travels.

They lived in a small village on the border with Zimbabwe. They were the only whites in the village. They had initially tried to show their faith in the people by not locking their house, but after being robbed innumerable times, they now keep it locked. Not only does the husband serve as the minister of a church, he also teaches at a bible university that he helped found to create more ministers.

He was ready to move on though and was leaning towards taking his message to the four-island nation of Comoros in the Indian Ocean. This former French colony sits off the coast of Kenya, near Madagascar. The islands have less than a million inhabitants and are largely Muslims. There is not a Christian church there. He says it desperately needs a Christian missionary.

I thought he was having doubts about the good he was accomplishing when he said, "I want to ask you a question and you can answer honestly. Do you think my wife and I are wasting our lives?"

"Absolutely not. I admire anyone who devotes his life to some ideal and isn't preoccupied trying to accumulate as much as he can nor is concerned about material comfort.  I commend the life you have chosen."

"Do you think there is a life beyond this?"

And then began the proselytizing. The guy may have been on vacation, but he was at heart a salesman and he saw in me a potential sale, and he went at it hard. He had somewhat won my favor, so I was willing to continue the conversation for a spell, until everything became black and white with him.

I told him I had just spent two months among Muslims whose religion was a more central part of their life than with most people, and had had to listen to them tell me their religion was the one true religion, though none at least tried to convert me. This guy was convinced his beliefs were the one and only and that all others weren't even to be considered.

He told me I was a sinner and that he was a sinner and that everyone is a sinner and that if I didn't accept Jesus as my Lord I would be doomed to hell. I tried to reason with him, that maybe that isn't entirely true and that there are shreds of truth in all religions, but he would have none of it.

This sudden, unexpected onslaught caught me by surprise and had me reeling and cowering.  I felt as if I had been thrust into a boxing match with some out-of-control swinging madman who wished to finish me off before the end of round one.  I had no idea I was in for a harangue of such proportions when I took my seat beside this guy.  I had no inking whatsoever that he was a missionary or a religious sort. I felt an initial sense of foreboding that this was someone I wasn't going to like when I first glimpsed him, as he had the look of a business executive with his clean cut, somewhat stern, all-too-serious, almost unfriendly bearing.

But when he started telling me about himself, coming on nice and friendly, before he launched into his pitch, I thought I had misread him and that he was going to be an enjoyable, interesting guy.  When he turned hell-fire preacher on me, I realized my instincts were all too correct. He may not have been a corporate weasel, but he was a species equally despicable--a cold, self-righteous, harshly judgemental religious fanatic.

His harangue was giving me a headache. He was traveling home for Christmas. Couldn't he take a break from his job trying to save souls? I felt sorry for the guy, spitting out the same passionless programmed refrain he'd regurgitated thousands of times. He had no warmth or sincerity, just a lot of threats. The poor guy was burdened with a world of guilt and implied life on earth was nothing but a wretched ordeal. That certainly seemed true of his world, not mine.   I had just had a most satisfying, uplifting two months on my bike that had me in wonderful spirits. I felt as blessed as one is supposed to feel after being at an ashram praying and fasting for a couple of months.  And now he was defiling and deflating me.

His rhetoric was nothing but poison. What a contrast he was to all the cyclists I'd met in Turkey, especially Bjorn, who were so happy and fulfilled and serene, as if they were divinely touched. If he'd had even a hint of their glow, I would have thought whatever he was selling, I'd be interested. But he couldn't have been more repellent or pitiable. He detested earthly existence and was absolutely miserable and wanted everyone he met to feel the same. He was utterly devoid of joy or contentment.

I told him I preferred to be around people who were positive, rather than negative, people who were happy and content rather than morose and miserable. He said nothing could be more positive than knowing the kingdom of heaven awaited those who embraced Jesus. Listening to this guy was hell for me. I was shriveling up, wondering how much more I could take.

To divert him, I told him I was an evangelist myself, traveling the world as an apostle for the bicycle, trying to save souls, though more by example than by preaching. "According to my gospel," I told him, "Anyone who drives an automobile, unless out of absolute necessity, is a sinner and is doomed to a hell of eternal gridlock of carbon monoxide spewing cars."

I pointed my finger and proclaimed, "Driving a car is the equal of any of your sins. In my world nothing is more immoral or offensive.  If there'd been cars in the time of Moses, there would have been a commandment condemning them. It is the instrument of the devil, something God only allows as a temptation to resist and renounce.

"Anyone who drives a car violates in some manner or another each and every one of the Seven Deadly Sins: Sloth (those who drive are too lazy to self-propel themselves), Pride (those who drive wish to be judged by the quality of their car), Lust (cars are a trinket meant as a means of sex appeal), Greed (as a representation of their wealth), Gluttony (the urge for big), Anger (road rage afflicts anyone behind a wheel), Envy (no matter how good a car one has, the time comes when one desires one better). In this modern world, cars are the root of all evil. Don't condemn me for my sins. I won't even ride in a car except under the most dire of circumstances."

When he tried to interrupt, I just plowed on, "Only those who renounce the car and embrace the bicycle can gain entrance to heaven. I don't go around though ranting and raving about the demon automobile and its many evils. Rather than condemning, I simply serve as an example of someone who lives by the bicycle and has achieved a degree of peace and contentment. I feel as if I have been saved.  The bicycle has truly been my salvation. It brings me peace and joy and contentment. Hallelujah.  It brings mental and spiritual health. Praise the lord.  It is a symbol of humility and freedom. Hallelujah. It keeps one physically fit and isn't hostile to the environment or its inhabitants. Hallelujah. I bike across countries and continents to demonstrate it has no limits. Praise to the bike.  Don't tell me you can't bike a few blocks or miles to go to work or to visit friends or to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes.  No distance is too far for the bicycle.  Amen!"

I didn't know where this diatribe had come from or what had possessed me to go off like this.  Some of it sounded pretty convincing.  This is what my unconscious has been forming all these years and thousands of miles I've spent on my bike.  I was almost beginning to believe it. It made as much sense as his rhetoric.  I filibustered on hoping he would finally throw up his arms, as if I were some sort of lunatic or devil, and say "Enough," as I had wanted to do to him. I didn't pause to ask him if he drove a car or if he had a bicycle, not wanting him to get a peep in. He'd already confessed to being a sinner.

When I saw a veil of fright began to fall over him, I smiled inwardly, then apologized for going on so and told him I'd sure like to talk some more but I needed to finish the book I was reading, as I'd promised to give it to someone in Chicago who was leaving the next day. He made a couple of stabs at conversation later on when we were brought our meals, asking what I thought of Lance Armstrong and if I'd seen the movie "Quicksilver." I gave him quick inconsequential responses and returned to Istanbul, a much more hospitable place than anywhere that included this guy, real or imagined.

How wonderful it was to be back in Turkey, despite its many conflicts and simmering tensions. It wasn't exactly a relaxing place to be, but it certainly made for an interesting two months. As Pamuk points out in his book, Turkey is still evolving. It has made tremendous strides in becoming a more democratic, humane place, while continuing to grow in influence and importance among the nations of the world. Though I had my doubts at times, I am very happy to have spent so much time in Turkey to better understand a country that is becoming increasingly prominent.

I can continue my travels vicariously through the blogs of several of the cyclists I met in Turkey:

Adria at http://capalestenbici.blogspot.com/ (Spanish/Catalan)

Mathias at http://monmaaat.blogspot.com/ (French)

Philippe and Robin at http://my.opera.com/LeckerLakritz/ (German)

Rob at http://www.cyclingthelongwaydown.com/ (English)

Julian and Sash at http://lonkat.wordpress.com/ (English)

Gosha and Lucas at http://www.ciekawi-swiata.com/ (Polish)

Later, George


Stuart said...

Dear George, thanks for a gripping tale. The missionary on the airplane reminded me there are enough religious kooks on the American side of the Atlantic. It is a shame that grown men can get so worked up over what are basically conflicting fairy tales. I personally would like to join your "bicycle religion." My bicycle has brought me more joy than any religion ever did. As you said in a previous thread, riding a bike is like flying and what could be more heaven than that? Happy New Year! Question: (sorry if you've already answered this before) Is there a type of bicycle saddle you can recommend for long range comfort? I bought a Brooks saddle 12 years ago. It's nicely sprung, but still as rock hard as the day I bought it. I admit I haven't been very good about waxing it.

JamiMaria said...

Sorry that your seatmate couldn't be more open minded. People like him give religious folks a bad name. If he had just spoken about doing good works, Im sure he would have been much more convincing than he did when going into hardsell mode.

I'm glad that holding a mirror up to him with your own prostylizing found you some peace and hopefully made him think about this approach.

george christensen said...

Stuart: I'm really not fussy about saddle, position or equipment. I have five bikes I ride for different occasions and sit differently on each of them and they each have a different saddle. I couldn't tell you what any of them were without looking. They are all fairly narrow and of vinyl. I have ridden with leather seats and have nothing against them. As with most of my equipment, other than tires, I scavenge rather than buy, so use whatever I happen to find.

T.C. O'Rourke said...


george christensen said...

Friends: Here are a few comments directly emailed to me that are too good not to share:

You were much more tolerant of that x-tian sitting next to you than I would have been. In situations like that in the past, I can get abusive and insulting with them, denigrate them, try to bait and irritate them. Undermind their confidence in their faith any way I can. Let them know I thnk they are full of shit. I just cant seem to help it when the fundamentalists push me like that.

that bloke in the plain must have been a pain you were a virtual captive , the thing that always bamboozles me is the faith they have to believe something without any doubt impossible for me.

you made me want to nominate you for sainthood, except of course there already is a St George, and anyway, I don't think you really want to be a saint.
You know, even tho' we've always known you as biking George, and, even tho' my family does now have a car (and we did have one for a while in
Chicago, too; but you know I only bought it because it was beyond the pale to haul manure on the el?) I had forgotten how anti car you are!
George, you are my hero!!!

What an experience. When you mentioned the seatmate from hell, I immediately thought of riding with two small children in laps next to you. I’m glad you finally put this religious nut in his place. How awful.

We got a big kick out of how you handled the missionary on the airplane & were really sorry you got stuck next to someone like that. I, too, feel sorry for people who tout their religion as the end-all and be-all. Sounds, though, like your trip was another great adventure and the other cyclists were wonderful company.

Interesting blog about the ranter. I liked your bicycle rant come back.

jesus, it was torturous just reading that entry about your seatmate. brutal...

I recommend reading "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins. He provides plenty of intellectual ammo for encounters with bible thumpers.

Matt said...

If there is a heaven the Cycling Gods will surely accept you as one of their own. As it is now you lead a better life than most of us here because you are fulfilling your dreams and aspirations right here on Earth. That is the true ticket to heaven and anyone with an ounce of wisdom knows that. Many people want to do what you do but they never do and so some of them [who actually can do what you do] would rather bank on an afterlife that they aren't even sure exists. Oh well...

Live Long, Live Strong!

Julie Hochstadter said...

George, I love your posts! And what a great response to the preacher. I probably would have just opened my book when he was midsentence....after I told him I was Jewish.

george christensen said...

Hi George:-

Among those I shared your last report with was a professor at McCormick Seminary. His response:

Thanks Jerry,

I appreciate George's response. I laughed when I read the part about his own attempt to proselytize. On another note, I think we more progressive folk forget that evangelicals like this missionary DO feel an incredible burden to share the gospel. I don't think it is mean spirited. Yes, they can be persistent, even rude. However, IF one believed in a hell like they do, and IF one cared about people's souls, then it is not unreasonable to expect someone to be doggedly persistent about salvation (so conceived). Just some food for thought.


Jerry: I could not agree more with your friend's observation that the missionary carried "an incredible burden." He was outrageeously, cripplingly "burdened" with guilt and duty and somberness. What bothered me most was his absolute inability to accept that people of other faiths have an equal devotion to their faith, and their beliefs, like his, are totally based on faith. I thought it was tragic and stupid that he couldn't acknowledge that Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus and other Christians deserved some credit for abiding by a guiding faith that shared many of his beliefs. He was not a loving, compassionate, caring individual. He did not glow with contentment or enlightment. He was hard-headed and close-minded, brainwashed almost. It still turns my stomach to be reminded of him.

Regards, George

george christensen said...

Hi George. I really enjoyed your Turkey blogs. What adventures. Thank you for sharing. I was silently cheering you on as I read how you handled the conversation with your seat-mate on the flight home. Nothing worse than someone shoving their beliefs down your throat. Hope we can see you one of these days--K