Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Side, Turkey

Friends: After a one hundred mile stretch of virtual wilderness along the coast through rugged terrain made even more rugged by several long hard climbs of five miles or more to over 1,500 feet, I'm back on the flats for one hundred miles of tourist blight to Antalya, a city of nearly a million, where I'll have to decide whether I want to continue on to Istanbul via the coast or head inland. It would be considerably shorter going inland, 500 miles rather than 800, but I would sacrifice the balmy coastal temperatures and an assortment of historic sites, Biblical and otherwise, including Troy and a replica of the Trojan Horse.

Alanya was the first genuine tourist city I passed through late yesterday. Though it is well past peak tourist season and swimming weather, I saw my fırst bunches of tourists, mostly German, on the loose. Earlier in the day I encountered the first travelers I'd seen in over two weeks, a 60-year old French couple on bikes. They'd been at it for over six months, starting in Portugal. It was theır first tour and they were loving it, with no set return date. They hadn't encountered a touring cyclist in over a month themselves, not since the Ukraine, their favorite of the many countries they have passed through.

I've made a leisurely ride of it since leaving Adana, stopping whenever the whim strikes to peruse the five Turkish English newspapers that Zekeriya sent me off with. They have been a gold mine of information explaining and confirming many of my impressions of Turkey. They have covered it all--dogs, cigarettes, scarves, juvenile delinquents, admission to the EU, the Kurdish problem, the economy, the week-long Muslim holiday and many other lingering issues I was unaware of from Cyprus to Israel.

Stray dogs have been more of a nuisance in Turkey than anywhere I've traveled. Many municipalities put out strychnine to lessen their numbers. There are private organizations sympathetic to the dog who try to handle the problem in a more humane way, as death by strychnine is slow and painful. An Englishman has funded a program to neuter dogs--called Neuter and Release. Most dogs appear healthy and well-fed, as the Turks care enough to put out food for them, but they don't care enough to adopt them.

Zekeriya pointed out a park on his campus that was swarming with dogs that the students randomly feed. They are docile during the day, but a terror when Zekeriya bikes past them in the dark.

I came to Turkey somewhat concerned about the Kangals, a mastiff-type of sheep dog that grow to over 150 pounds. They are bred to be kindly towards humans, but I've still had a couple of less than pleasant encounters with them. A feral pack of three set upon me in that wilderness stretch along the coast. I was on a steep climb, just barely maintaining my momentum, leaving me utterly at their mercy. They were huge. When they came charging after me, I wasn't fearful of a nip in the calf, but rather a gouge out of my thigh.

The leader sank his fangs into one of the bags on the back of my bike and didn't let go, bringing me to a halt. I hopped off the bike opposite him screaming with primal ferocity at the top of my lungs and looking for rocks to throw.  It was as terrifying as being attacked in my tent by gun-wielding bandits. He backed off, but with no lessening of his ferocious barking. A passing car helped to save the day, scattering he and his gang. I dreaded looking at the damage to my gear, fearing what he had punctured--my tent or down sleeping bag or Ortlieb. Miraculously, he had simply latched on to a dangling loop on my day back, nearly pulling it out from under the bungee cords holding it down.

Another time when I ventured off on a side dirt road at dusk towards a forest, a half dozen territorial dogs set upon me, giving me another fright near the top of the scale. They barely gave me the space to turn around as they swarmed about me.

During my question and answer session with Zekeriya's students, someone asked if it was true the Chinese eat dog. I said that I hadn't been aware of dog-eating in China, but that it was quite evident in Vietnam. It made the dogs very well-behaved. Dog wasn't a common menu item, but I frequently saw caged dogs being transported to market on the back of motorcycles or in trucks. I also saw hanging butchered dogs in the market. There were no grimaces or groans from Zekeriya's students as he translated my answer, just a burst of laughter at the end of his translation. He turned to me and explained that he'd added that he wouldn't mind sending Vietnam some of Turkey's many extra dogs.

All the construction and road-building and quality of the roads in Turkey bears a semblance to China. It is a clear indication of a thriving economy. The newspapers all confirmed this. The economy is so robust, expectıng more than an eight per cent growth rate for 2010, that "hot money" from investors dissatisfied with investment opportunities elsewhere has been pouring into the country. Turkey's national debt has actually fallen in the past year.

Just as in China, many companies have aspirations of cracking Fortune Magazine's list of the top 500 companies in the world. One is the fast food chain Simit Sarya, selling Turkish pastries and sandwiches. It was a great moment in the company's history when its number of franchises in Turkey surpassed those of McDonald's and Burger King. It is growıng strongly ın Germany and Holland where there are large Turkish populations. Turkey is also an Internet leader, among the top fıve countries in the world creating spam, along wıth the US, Korea, India and Brazil.

Its strong economy makes it an ever attractive candidate for admittance to the EU. It has also been tryıng to enhance its case by improving its treatment of ethnics and religious minorities and increasing press freedom and rights of women. The Turks have long had an uneasy relationship with Greece and somewhat blame Greek Cyprus, one of the 27 equal partners in the EU, for holding up its approval.

I also learned more about the week-long Muslim holiday Kurban Bayram (Feast of the Sacrifice), that made it difficult for David and I to find food one day. It coincides with the annual huge pilgrimage of a couple million pilgrims to Mecca. It commemorates Allah's test of Abraham's faith by asking him to sacrifice his only son Isaac. At the last second, just before Abraham is about to sacrifice his son, Allah intervenes and says he was just testing him and he needn't kill his son. Abraham was so relieved he sacrificed a nearby sheep. On this holiday Muslims sacrifice a goat or sheep or cow sharing it with a gathering of family and friends and also giving a portion of the meat and to the needy. In the larger cities there aren't always enough qualified butchers to go around to butcher the animals. Amateurs are often hired to do the butchering out on the street.

Since the holiday in effect goes on for nine days through two weekends many people travel back to their home towns, as Zekeriya did, resulting in a surge of traffic deaths. The Turks have a higher accident rate than most countries, though it hasn't seemed so treacherous to me. There are regular campaigns trying to get the Turks to drive better. The latest was accompanied by the slogan--"Don't be a traffic monster." Many trucks and buses have "Allah Korusun" above their windshield--"May Allah Protect Me." Traffic accidents are so common in Istanbul some drivers have their blood-type stenciled on their bumpers.

My reading also informed me that over one million teen-aged boys were convicted of a crime in the past year. It is a growing scourge and not wholly concentrated among the eastern Kurds.

It was just over a year ago that a law went into effect banning smoking in public places. The battle continues with a new law not allowing cigarettes to be sold openly on shelves, but rather hidden behind the counter, forcing buyers to ask for them.

Next June there is a presidential election. Campaigning has already begun. The wearing of scarves is an issue. One of the opposition parties is trying to get the president to commit on whether grade school girls should be able to wear scarves. He says he is sick of the topic and doesn't care to make it an issue. The same opposition candidate was recently campaigning in eastern Turkey's largest city and said how wonderful it was to be able to safely walk its streets, something a politician couldn't have done until recently. He was of course accompanied by legions of security. There are those not only protesting scarf wearing but also the mandatory Sunni Islam religious course given in school.

Author V.S. Naipaul and film director Emir Kusturica were also in the news, as both had to decline invitations to attend high profile art events that were to feature them, as ardent Muslims were angered by anti-Islamic remarks both had made in the past.

There wasn't a newspaper that didn't have at least a couple smiling photos of President Obama. Turkey was the first country he visited after becoming president, indicating how important he considers Turkey. There is still concern that relations between US and Turkey are not the best, as Turkey turns more Islamıc and somewhat stands by Iran. Ten per cent more Turks consider themselves Muslim than did five years ago.

Later, George

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