Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another Session With CVDV





Everyone attending Christian Vande Velde's second annual Christmas week appearance at Chicago's Garmin store was handed a raffle ticket for a chance to win one of six autographed Garmin jerseys. The drawing for three of them was held before Christian took the stage. When the guy next to me won the first jersey, I figured that was it for my row. But no, the third ticket drawn was mine.



I was still stuffing the jersey into my backpack after unfolding it to give it a good look when Christian settled into his chair on the stage. Before he began fielding questions from his audience of one hundred or so fans, he looked directly at me sitting in the third row and said, "Congratulations George on winning the jersey."

"Thanks," I replied, somewhat stunned at his cordial familiarity, "I'll be wearing it at this year's Tour."

"George, folks," Christian continued, "Travels all over the world on his bicycle. He was in China last year and just returned from Turkey."

Even as a team leader and one of the foremost riders in the peloton, Christian is widely known as a great supporter of his teammates, happy to share the limelight, and here he was doing it even at a public appearance with me, a mere touring cyclist. His manner was so casual and unassuming, it was as if he had just walked into a living room full of friends.

It had been six months since I last talked with Christian at his team hotel in Rotterdam before the start of The Tour de France, but he was acting as if we'd talked just last week. And that's how he responded to each of his questioners, from the eight-year old girl in the first row who asked, "How much do you ride your bike?" to the young man sitting over on the side who asked, "How many bikes do you have?"

He told the girl that he rode his bike every day and then asked her how often she rode her bike. She squirmed a bit and meekly said, "Not that much." As to the number of bikes he has, I was surprised to hear him say, "I have a lot," as when I was out at his house a year ago I only saw three bikes hanging in his garage. Evidently he has a room full of bikes elsewhere. Among his bikes are a Trek from his time with Lance's Postal Service team and also a CSC bike from his spell with Bjarne's Riis' team when it was ranked number one in the world.

He also has his father's track bike that his dad rode in the Olympics in 1972, the second of two Olympics he participated in, the same number as Christian. "I won the national championships on it in 1994," Christian said, "So don't let anyone tell you that its necessary to have the latest equipment to do well."

Someone else wanted to know what it felt like to wear the pink leader's jersey in the Giro d'Italia. Christian said he didn't appreciate it enough and that he only wore it for one day. "When I lost it the next day by eight tenths of a second to the Italian rider Pellizzoti and saw him fall to his knees in tears, I realized it was a bigger deal than I thought. Those next four days while he kept the jersey by less than a second over me were the four worst days of my life. I kept looking over at that jersey knowing that it could have been mine."

Among the questions I got in was, "Who on the Garmin team will wear the yellow jersey after you guys win The Tour's second stage team time trial?"

"You're right that we'll win that stage. We'll have a very strong team and the course is very good for us."

"It's not too long is it."

"No."

"So will we see you in yellow?"

"No, it will probably be one of our sprinters, either Tyler Farrar or Thor Hushovd."

"Not you, this time, like after the team time trial in the Giro?"

"No, I'll get it in the mountains."

"What do you think about the summit finish on the Galibier."

"I'm dreading it already."

The Galibier is a high peak in the Alps not far from L'Alpe d'Huez. The peloton has ridden over it many times, but it has never hosted a stage finish. It will be the highest stage finish in Tour history and will be perhaps the most anticipated stage in this year's race. It will be the eighteenth of The Tour's twenty-one stages, the second to last stage in the mountains. The next day's stage will finish on L'Alpe d'Huez. The final two stages will be a time trial in Grenoble and then the final processional stage to Paris.

I prefaced another of my questions with the comment "I've been reading Mark Cavendish's autobiography." Christian grimaced at the mention of the hot-headed, super-sprinter, who has a sometimes heated rivalry with Christian's teammate Farrar, and made a scowl of disapproval, muttering "I'm sorry to hear that," about his only negative comment all night. "Cavendish wrote," I continued, "That George Hincapie's legs are a bundle of varicose veins. Are there many distinctive legs in the peloton?"

"Its true that the veins on George's legs really stick out. Even when he's wearing tights you can see the veins bulging. Andre Greipel has really huge legs. You look at them and you almost feel fear."

Christian had mentioned Hincapie earlier when someone asked him about the hierarchy in the peloton. "It takes a while to earn respect," he said. "When I first started riding in Europe whenever I'd go by someone they'd mutter, 'Stupid American.' I'd really have to fight to get through the peloton. Now its surprisingly easy. George Hincapie, one of the most veteran and respected riders, says he still sometimes gets abuse, but the difference now is that whoever has a harsh word for him will later apologize."

I subscribe to two cycle racing magazines and peruse several racing websites and devour every book on racing I can get my hands on, but as with the previous two Christian Q&As I've attended, and the personal Q&A I had at his house, I was gaining insights and insider information that expanded my knowledge and appreciation for the inner workings of the sport. Christian had us all spellbound with his anecdotes.

At 34 Christian is one of the veterans of the peloton. His first Tour de France was in 1999 as a support rider for Lance, the year he won The Tour for the first time. Someone asked what he planned on doing when he retired.

"I'm not thinking about that," Christian replied. "When I turned pro and was riding with Lance he told me not to be concerned about my career after cycling, just to focus on the job at hand. And that's what I do. I put all my thought and energy into being the best rider I can."

"Who was your hero growing up?" one of the younger members of the audience asked. I expected him to say Greg LeMond, as Christian had once told me what a thrill it was for him to play a round of golf with LeMond when he was a young rider. But no, he answered, "The Russian pursuit rider Viatcheslav Ekimov, even though I couldn't spell his first name and I'm not sure if I could now. I just loved the way he rode in his all red Russian uniform on the track. And then he was my roommate the first year I rode the Tour. That was quite a thrill."

I'd emailed Christian before the event telling him that I had a couple extra Tour course markers if he'd like some more, as I felt I owed him a dozen or more for his generosity the year before when he gave me two jerseys and a pair of tights and socks and box of Clif bars in exchange for the three course markers that I'd scavenged from that year's route for him. I wore those tights and one of the long sleeve winter jerseys nearly every day in my travels about Turkey and thought of him as I pulled them on every morning in my tent.

He replied he'd love to have a few more. He told me he had mounted the ones I gave him last year at the entrance to his house. Where these would go, he did not know, maybe to Spain in his house in Girona, where he was headed next week. It was nice to know that those yellow day-glow markers with a large black arrow and the official Tour emblem in its lower right hand corner meant as much to him as they do to me.

They are truly hallowed objects to any Tour follower. They give me delight when I spot them ahead as I ride The Tour route and also when I give those hanging in my apartment a glance. Their luster never wanes, not only bringing back memories of following The Tour, but also knowing that I've been able to disperse a few to friends, including Christian, who have mounted them in their home or bike shop or office or garage, and equally revere them. Christian's eyes lit up when I presented him with a couple more, as he blurted, "Awesome."

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. Its a former French colony off the coast of Kenya and 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?"

"Not at all. I admire anyone who devotes their 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 also felt his beliefs were the only ones that were right and true 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 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 me seat beside this guy.  I had no inking whatsoever that he was a missionary or a religious sort. I feared he might be a business executive with his clean cut, somewhat stern, all-too-serious, almost unfriendly look.

I felt an initial sense of foreboding that this was someone I wasn't going to like. As he first started telling me about himself, coming on nice and friendly before he launched into his pitch, I thought I had misread him.  He seemed like a nice, friendly guy who I was going to enjoy.  But 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 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 a missionary 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 ranks right up there with  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 driving a car violates in some manner or another each 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.   It brings mental and spiritual health.  It keeps one physically fit and isn't hostile to the environment or its inhabitants. I bike across countries and continents to demonstrate it has no limits.  Don't anyone tell me why they can't bike a few blocks or miles to go to work or to visit friends or to the corner store for the pack of cigarettes they can't do without."

I didn't know where this diatribe had come from. 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

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Istanbul 4

Friends: It wasn't until nearly midnight last night, after over three hours of randomly biking about Istanbul that Orlando (the English cyclist), Adria (the Spanish cyclist), and Phillippe and Robin (a couple of German cyclists), and I finally encountered three twenty-year old Turkish cyclists that we thought might have been the remnants of the Thursday Night Ride that we had failed to find.

They flew past us on a descent to the Atatürk Bridge over the Golden Horn back to the old city of Istanbul riding BMX bikes like crazed, and possibly drugged, water-bugs, darting amongst what little traffic there was at that late hour, then grabbed hold of a bus on the ascent like New York bike messengers for a free ride up the long climb. It took a hard effort to catch up to them, though they had slowed after letting go of the bus so they could perform their tricks hopping up curbs and then launching themselves back on to the roadway.

We learned they were an independent renegade group and knew nothing of the Thursday Night Ride.  They were out for some fun and games on their own. We five touring cyclists were at first a little let down that no one else showed up at the meeting point for the night's ride, but were thrilled that we had all met up, not sure who would make the effort, and had a great time on our own exploring the city in the dark, not always sure where we were and then had it all topped off by meeting this trio of fun-loving, acrobatic, fearless cyclists.

Only one spoke a little English, but that was enough for us to explain ourselves and also to learn a little about them. One of them owned a bike store that sold Cannondales and GTs. He wondered if we knew some famous English BMX cyclist. None of us did. Then he pulled out his cell phone and showed us a youtube clip of a Scottish BMXer and his stunt riding in Edinburgh, the very same video that Robert posted on my blog in the comments to my Gazi Tep entry on Nov. 22. Amazing how much notoriety it had achieved, as others beside Robert and this fellow had brought it to my attention.

This final four hour ride all over Istanbul with such superb company couldn't have been a better conclusion to my four days in Istanbul and two months in Turkey. I was the one who had arranged our gathering, as none of the others had met until this evening. There wasn't enough time for our overload of topics to discuss. Everyone was thrilled to meet others who had been touring for months, and had seen and experienced many of the same things.  We gabbed away for nearly an hour waiting for some locals to show up, not upset at all to be delayed.  When it finally became evident no one else would be joining us, we went meandering on our own, stopping every half hour or so at some vantage  for a little powwow to discuss what we had seen and how we should proceed and also to follow up on various conversational strands.  We would get so caught up in talk, we had to remind ourselves to resume riding.  It was a fantastic communing.

The two young Germans, like Adria, were taking a year off from university for a long bike ride. They are headed to the Black Sea, then Georgia and Iran, if they can secure a visa, and then on to either India or China. Like Adria, this was their first tour of any sort and they hoped not the last.

After two months on the road they had gained that touring cyclist aura of sublime ecstasy, totally fulfilled with what they had accomplished and not wanting their adventure to end. All were fully self-satisfied, devoid of any need to brag or boast of what they had accomplished or overcome. The conversation ebbed and flowed between drawing out each other's experiences and then sharing one's own similar experiences.

We were all of like mind and consciousness, fully understanding, as only a fellow touring cyclist could, the essence of each other's nature, honed by thousands of miles and months of bicycling, undistracted by the usual petty worldly concerns that have those in the daily grind questioning their lives. İt was a seminal evening, riding and communing with such souls. Everyone had an added degree of ecstasy riding bikes freed of the forty or fifty pounds of gear that normally encumbered them, making the riding truly effortless and free.

Just as the Turkish BMXers, Phillipe and Robin were daredevils of a sort, as they had illegally ridden across the towering Bosporus Bridge to join us. They said a police car tried to stop them, but with the traffic bumper-to-bumper at a crawl there was no way it could catch them. After our ride they would return over the bridge under a full moon. I was sorry I wasn't going that direction myself.

I nearly had a sixth for our ride when I met another touring English cyclist earlier in the day, a young man who had started from the northernmost point in Great Britain, John O'Groats, and was headed to Cape Town at the bottom of Afrıca. He was staying at the same hostel as the two English and one French cyclist that I met three days ago. They had told him about me and he had been hoping to find me. Unfortunately his bike was in a shop getting an overhaul, every bearing regreased, wheels trued, and all the cables replaced, so he couldn't join us.

Prior to our night ride I spent my final day exploring Istanbul on the bike, stopping at parks to read for a spell and then continuing on. I had initially planned on doing my duty as a tourist and giving one of the big palaces a look, but as I stood in the long line waiting to buy a ticket and had various school kids come up to me, wanting to take my picture and shake my hand, not all of them as friendly as one might assume, rather showing off to their friends that they could hobnob with a Westerner, I elected to be true to my heart and spend my day seeing the hidden corners of the city on my bike rather than trudging through an opulent palace, gazing upon objects that only make me glad I'm not possessed by the desire to acquire such things.

So my spirit remained light all day, making discoveries and truly feeling a part of the city. I walked my bike through the narrow streets of the Grand Bazaar for over an hour, truly feeling the pulse of the city. I was sitting in a plaza beside what is known as the Pigeon Mosque for the thousands of pigeons that perch upon it, just across from the Galata Bridge crossing the Golden Horn, when the mid-afternoon call to prayers was sounded and saw the plaza clear out of all its male occupants as they flocked into the mosque for one of their five daily prayer sessions.

I'm down to my final hours in Turkey. I'll have plenty to continue to digest on my 24-hour trip back to Chicago, with an overnight at Heathrow in London awaiting my second flight. I wonder if a Santa will pay a visit to those of us sleeping in the terminal on Christmas Eve.

The weather has been so exceptional these four days in Istanbul, I'm almost wishing that I were continuing on to Athens. Its always sad to see the end of weeks of spending five, six, seven hours a day on the bike followed by a night in my tent. But the weather is about to turn nasty and ferocious once again with the wintry weather that has been devastating Europe.

Later, George

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Istanbul 3

Friends: My bike lure worked once again, snaring several more touring cyclists--a pair of young rookie Germans, including one with dreads, and a 40-year old well-traveled Englishman, Orlando. The Brit was a keeper, my best catch yet of the dozen or so I've added to my collection since arriving in Istanbul four days ago.

Orlando had just wrapped up a six-month ride from England to eastern Turkey several days ago and then bused 1,000 miles back to Istanbul, having had enough of the snow and cold. Besides being a rare experienced touring cyclist, he is the first I have met on this trip who follows racing and is a full devotee of The Tour de France, opening up a whole new field of conversation. He set out on his ride just before The Tour began, so wasn't able to follow it as closely as he normally would. I was delighted to give him a first-hand report of my experience following it.

Not only could he appreciate the Garmin jersey and tights that have been my uniform the past couple of weeks and earlier on the trip in the cold of the high country, he expressed an eagerness to join me next year following The Tour. It's starting point will be just a short hop for him over the Channel from England, in the Vendee region of France, just south of Brittany in the northwest corner of the country. Orlando is enough of a fan to know this and had already been contemplating getting over for it, the first time he would have witnessed The Tour other than at its Grand Depart in London in 2007.

Like every other touring cyclist I have encountered here in Istanbul, other than at the airport, he was bikeless, taking a break from the bicycle, getting around by foot rather than on his bike, something that is utterly unfathomable to me. Six months of travel on the bike certifies one as an ardent cyclist, a true devotee who ought to be so bonded to his bike that he wouldn't want to part from it, at least for long.  I speak for myself of course.  I certainly couldn't or wouldn't willingly forsake my bike. I live for the bicycle and want to ride it every day and at every opportunity. If I don't get a ride in, my spirit withers, leaving me lethargic and only half alive.

I crave that daily joyous glide on the bike, that freeing sensation of flight giving me some release from the earthly bonds of gravity and my earthly worries. It makes me feel good and makes me forget the bad.  If I don't get that fix, I'm not good for much. Yes indeed, I am an addict, and evidently there aren't many. I seem to be mistaken to think all those who have been on their bikes for months getting here, having ridden thousands of miles, would be similarly transfixed. They all say they need a break, not realizing how revitalizing it is to give their bike a ride, especially stripped of all the weight it has been carrying.

If I had not been remaining faithful to my bike, I would not have met Orlando nor Adria nor any of the others. Orlando said he saw me ride by two days ago and chased after me, but wasn't able to catch me. He had been on the alert for me since, as he hadn't encountered another fellow cyclist in quite a while, not recognizing those unaccompanied by their bikes.

He was eager to hear how I had coped with Turkey. He too had had some quite traumatic experiences. He had been attacked by boys and dogs and was solicited for sex by a guy on a motorcycle who tagged along with him for twenty minutes. That was his most unnerving experience, as it went on for so long and, he didn't know how he was going to escape the guy.

"I'm still trying to figure out if I would recommend anyone else to bicycle Turkey," he said. "I've had some very very nice experiences, but some very horrible ones too."

He was waved over by a group of boys early in his travels in Turkey, well, well before the notorious east. He thought they were just being friendly, so he stopped to have a chat. They surrounded him and then tried to pull his panniers off his bike. He was able to escape. He was regularly stoned when he reached the east and had boys grabbing and chasing after him. One group threw empty bottles in front of his bike trying to cause him to crash. He sounded like he had it worse than David and I.

He was once surrounded by six dogs and had to wave his bike around to fend them off, a super human act with all the weight on his bike. But Orlando was an easy going chap, who thrived on all aspects of touring and only wanted to be positive about the experience, shrugging off the adversity, and not really wanting to dwell on them. When we met other cyclists, I had to drag these episodes out of him, as he didn't care to bring them up.

Just before I met Orlando, I had had another aggravating encounter as I sat reading in a plaza. Three teen-aged boys in their school blazers, smoking cigarettes, plopped down on an adjoining bench and began the "what is your name" game with not a speck of sincerity. It was clear that they had no intention of practicing their English, but only meant to harass me. I responded in French, saying I didn't speak English, and tried to ignore them. They persisted, just wishing to fuck with the tourist, finally giving up and sneering, "pussy European," as they trudged off. I hadn't had one of these episodes in a while, but once again I had to ask, "What is it about the boys here that makes them so hostile and belligerent?"

This is a country with all sorts of simmering tensions. Turks from the western part of the country fear going into the eastern third of the country. What to do about the "Kurdish problem" is a pressing concern. There is also tension with the Greeks. The Cyprus issue has yet to be fully resolved, and there are disputes over Aegean islands between the two countries and regular dog fights between their air forces. Turkey is very upset that Greece has the largest military budget in proportion to its GNP of any European NATO country, knowing that it is largely directed at them.

Turkey is also in a tug-of-war between its Islamic factions and more western leaning factions. Those who favor the western lifestyle fear their freedom of choice might be taken away by the increasing influence of the Islamics. The Islamic factions see western influence as a degenerative force. A mob of women recently stoned bars in a city that began employing women waitresses, who they saw as undermining the morals of their husbands and sons. All the bars backed down and returned to all male wait staffs.

The Armenian question is in the news again with the US congress considering passing a resolution condemning Turkey for Armenian genocide after WWI. When the issue came up earlier this year Turkey withdrew its ambassador from the US and is prepared to do so again. Turkish Airlines recently hired Kobe Bryant as a spokesman. That set off protests by Armenians. Turkish Airlines is the fastest growing airline in the world adding more and more destinations. The latest is Australia. It is also one of the few to be showing a profit.

The underlying unrest in Turkey is also exacerbated by the ongoing EU debate of whether Turkey is worthy of joining the EU. The Turks don't like criticism. The prime minister sued a rival party for criticizing him and won the case, which included a monetary award. The Turks are continually criticized by EU review boards for not meeting their standards. That does not go down well either.

A Turkish academic wrote a column in yesterdays paper about how difficult it was for him to get a visa to Germany to attend a conference. He had to make several visits to the German consulate and provide more and more documentation, finally getting a visa good for a week. He cited this as an example of how Turks are perceived and took it as an insult to the entire Turk nation. He said he got a US visa good for ten years without any hassle. There are three million Turkish workers in Germany. They don't want more. If Turkey is allowed into the EU, Germany fears it will be flooded with Turks, since visas will no longer be necessary.

On and on Orlando and I went recounting the many unsettling aspects of Turkey. It is the biggest traveler cliche to say how friendly the people of a country are. That's what everyone says about every country they go to, Turkey as well. A good majority of Turks are, but a very significant minority are not. Even with the several groups of students I spent time with I could clearly sense a smoldering resentment and hostility from some. There were those who found it hard to overcome their prejudices toward someone of a nationality that had been conditioned to regard with ill will. Their sneering tone was unmistakable at times when they were talking amongst themselves in their own language. It makes one wary.

Orlando and I after a couple of months each in Turkey are less blind than others to the resentment simmering in the hearts of all too many Turks. Most cyclists and tourists manage to naively pass through Turkey without penetrating the surface and leave saying how much they enjoyed their time there. We regret that we can't as well.

One day left in Turkey. Tonight I could cap it with what could be one of the highlights of my travels here. I was finally able to track down the details on Istanbul's bicycling community's Thursday night ride thanks to Zekeriya. Orlando will join me and hopefully Adria and the young German cyclists I met yesterday, as well. The ride is scheduled to begin at eight p.m., three hours after dark, and will meander about Istanbul for a couple of hours. I am hoping it will affirm that profound proclamation of HG Wells, "Whenever I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race." And I am hopeful that I might be able to add a corollary: "Whenever I ride a bike with a Turk, I am happy to be amongst them."

Later, George

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Istanbul 2

Friends: Istanbul is Seattle with mosques. Both are hilly cities at the confluence of multiple waterways that are continually bustling with ferries. The hills of Istanbul, though, are dominated by magnificently domed, grandiose mosques with multiple minarets puncturing the sky. Most are older than the American republic, built by assorted sultans over the centuries, each trying to leave a stunning legacy.

Istanbul is equally dominated by its water front. Only two recently built bridges span the Bosporus Strait over to Asia. Ferries still are kept busy transporting people across the Strait and out to assorted islands in the Sea of Marama. The waterways and bridges are lined with hundreds of fishermen standing shoulder to shoulder all the day long for miles and miles hauling in anchovies. Fishing boats and yachts are docked along the shorelines and big time freighters perpetually chug by.

The waterways are nearly as clogged with traffic as the streets of the city. The bike is easily the best way to defeat all the roadway congestion, but few are brave enough to attempt it. In thirty miles yesterday and fifty today, ranging all  over on my trusty steed, I saw not even ten others on bicycles. The big surprise was meeting about that many European touring cyclists walking about the city taking a break from the bicycle after a couple of months of riding. If I hadn't been on my bike we would never have connected. Thanks to the racks and multiple water bottles adorning my bike, they all recognized me fellow touring cyclist and flagged me down, eager for some bonding.

Despite the increasingly wintry weather, touring cyclists continue to funnel through Turkey on their way to the Middle East and beyond. The first I met, Adria, was a student from Barcelona taking a year off before his final year of college to bicycle around the Mediterranean. He chased after me as I was pedaling past the Mosque of Suleyman the Magnificent, the largest mosque in the city. Like most I have met on this trip, this was his first bicycle tour, and he was having the time of his life.

After an hour over a tea we decided to join up the next day for a ride up the 25 miles of the Bosporus Strait from Istanbul to the Black Sea. Adria knew Istanbul well, as he had been here for two weeks and was staying for two more. He'd rented a room in an apartment with two Frenchmen and one German, who are students here. His parents are flying in to spend Christmas with him.

We had to break off our tea as I needed to get to the tourist office before it closed to find out about seeing a basketball game and also to locate the street where all the bicycle stores are congregated, as they, as with most like businesses here, flock together. I didn't need any bicycle parts at this point, but I certainly wanted to see what the bike shops of Istanbul might offer and to get a lead on the Thursday Night Ride.

Just a block from the tourıst office, I was waylaid by a young couple from Australia who recognized my Surly touring bike, as the guy had one himself. He and his wife weren't on bikes here, in for just a quick two week vacation, but they had toured elsewhere and were eager to talk touring. Me too, but I kept checking my watch to make sure I could make it to the tourist office before it closed at five.

I just made it. I learned that the professional basketball teams in Turkey just play once a week on the weekends, so I won't have the opportunity to see Allen Iverson playing with a bunch of Turks. Someone later told me one of the reasons they only play once a week and just on weekends is that the weekday traffic is so bad no one would be able to get to the games on time. I also learned that Iverson is not the dominant force people thought this former NBA MVP would be and that he seems to be devoting more effort to courting the 19-year old daughter of the team owner than to his game.

It was easy to find the cluster of bike shops, as I only needed to follow the tram line from in front of the tourist office to the major train station. The shops were packed together for two blocks. They were basically cramped wholesale outlets that did no repairs and were staffed by their owners, older gentlemen all, who didn't appear to be bicyclists. I was hoping to find young mechanics who liked to ride their bikes and could tell me about Istanbul's Critical Mass and weekly Thursday night rides. No one knew anything about them. The best lead I got was to check the local bicycle website bisikletforum.com.

After I left bike shop lane I was snagged by yet two more bikeless touring cyclists, one English and the other French, who were cycling to Syria and beyond. They had met up recently, but both had bicycled all the way from their home countries, the French guy on his own pulling a trailer and the English guy with a friend. After a lengthy debriefing we retreated to their hostel just a couple blocks away to meet up with the other English cyclist and to see if I cared to move from my more expensive hostel to theirs.

They too were all on their maiden bicycle tour and were gushing youthful enthusiasm while expressing great interest in my travels, past and present. My jaw from all these animated conversations was feeling more fatigue than my legs after a hundred mile day in the mountains. I had to break that conversation off as I had a dinner engagement with a dorm mate from my hostel, an 80-year old Englishman who had been in Istanbul for fourteen years, not returning home once in all that time, teaching English. He had led a fascinating life of travel and adventure and spoke with the regal tenor of Peter O'Toole. He did most of the talking, so I didn't have to worry about going hoarse.

For the first time in Turkey I met an American on a bicycle the next day as Adria I were riding together. He had had a grand tour with his wife three years ago riding from Amsterdam to Kazakhstan that was curtailed when his wife was hit. They had liked Istanbul so much they stayed here for her recovery rather than going back to LA, and have been here ever since. He has been teaching English at a university, while his wife has found work in public relations.

He couldn't tell me anything about the Thursday night rides, but he was a regular on the local Critical Mass. Unlike most around the world, Istanbul's Critical Mass varies its starting point. They tend to stick to the Asia side of Istanbul, as the traffic isn't so bad. Their numbers vary from 25 to 50 depending on the weather. He said there is less of a younger rebel element on their rides than such rides elsewhere. The riders are mostly wealthy cyclists wishing to put on display their expensive bikes. It is still a worthwhile gathering that he wouldn't miss. Their next ride is New Year's Eve, a week after my departure.

We talked and talked in the dark jumping from topic to topic. I was quick to bring up something else to keep him occupied so he wouldn't remember he had a ferry to catch. He had just hosted a couple of touring cyclists, otherwise would have invited us to crash with him. He lived out on Princess Island, a ferry ride of over an hour away. He was the second cyclist we had met who recommended going out to the island for a bike ride, the other a Turkish cyclist at a bike store. They both raved about it as a bicyclist's paradise. The road around the island is only twelve miles, but there are no cars on the island, just bicycles and horse drawn carriages.

Adria will have the time for a visit to the island, but probably not I, with just two days left in Istanbul. I have yet to do any of the serious site-seeing, taking advantage of the dry sunny weather to explore as many precincts as I can on the bike, putting off the museums and palaces for the rainy days. I would be happy to just linger with a book or newspaper near the sites tourists frequent to see what other fascinating characters my touring bike might attract. There seem to be an endless supply of them here.

Later, George

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Istanbul, Turkey

Friends: The last eight miles of my travels about Turkey into the heart of Istanbul were on a bike path of all things. Those final miles along the Sea of Marmara would have been as glorious as any of my tens of thousands of miles all over the world if I hadn't been riding in yet another cold drizzle.

Istanbul was living up to its reputation. December is its wettest month. My spirit still had some buoyancy to it though, closing in on this storied city and the end of my travels.  I was already getting a flavor of the city as I gazed upon the countless minarets poking skyward up ahead.  I was waiting for an extra surge of delight when I spotted the Blue Mosque. To my right out in the waterway were dozens, rather hundreds, of freighters filling the sea. The bike path was marked by turquoise lines rather than the customary green. A few fishermen were the only other ones braving the elements.

If I had been a day earlier the slender park area would have been teeming with people, as it had been a rare sunny day, my first in nearly a week. I took full advantage of it riding til past dark not minding at all that I was challenged to find a place to camp in the huge sprawl of this metropolis of twelve million. It added up to my first eighty-mile day in over a month, leaving me, thirty miles to the city center.

I was having such a pleasurable final romp in those warmer sunny temperatures, I was reconsidering my leanings to return home from Istanbul rather than pushing on to Athens, 700 miles away. It doesn't take much to revive my spirits, despite the battering they've taken recently. But I quickly wised up when a late afternoon wickedly cold wind began gusting off the sea like a slap in the face, threatening another turn for the worst in the weather.

How could I forget winter was just approaching, and conditions would only worsen. Why would I wish to subject myself to more of these wintry trying times that put my devotion to spending my days upon the bike to an extreme test. It always elevates the spirit to be on the bike, but the short days and iffy camping, along with the often dire weather, don't allow the full transcendence I haven't been getting enough of lately.

I found a superb campsite in some tall reeds after being rejected by a gas station and a hotel and also from a small clump of trees by a couple of barking dogs. I didn't get a great deal of sleep, though, as the raging wind slapped my rain fly into the tent all night. I kept waiting for the rain to start pelting down, but it held off until mid-morning shortly before I reached the airport, just as I was praying it would.

I stopped at the airport to check on the possibility of changing my return flight from Athens.   The weather had turned so miserable once again, I feared I might just hop on the next British Air flight to London and forgo Istanbul if they offered me a seat. But Heathrow was presently snowed in, so I was spared any such temptation. The British Air office was swamped by people desperate to escape Istanbul seeking alternate flights to Europe. One was a young British cyclist who'd been on the road for six months. He'd made it as far as Antalya on the Mediterranean and was stymied by the cold and wet. He had just flown into Istanbul from Antalya with his bike in a box.

These final trying conditions hadn't dimmed his enthusiasm. He'd had a marvelous six months and was fully aglow with that touring cyclist elixir of satisfaction. There is no mistaking it nor faking it. It is easy to identify the touring cyclist at a hostel full of backpackers or a campgrounds full of caravaners. They are the ones with hearts so light they almost seem to levitate. Their faces are painted with a shine of bliss.

The British Air staff at the airport weren't able to change my flight, though they tried. I was told I would have to call their office the next morning, Monday, to have it taken care of.  I was assured there were plenty of seats available. As I headed out the terminal, I noticed two other cyclists off in a corner with gear scattered about. It wasn't clear if they were arriving or departing, assembling or disassembling their bikes.

They were departing, reducing their gear to try to get under the weight limit of thirty kilos each for a flight to Hong Kong. They were a young French couple who had been turned away from Syria. They had just completed a thousand-mile bus trip across the country back to Istanbul, so they could make a big hop to the warmer temperatures of southern China. They had backpacked in China two years ago and loved their time there and wanted to return.

This was their first bike trip and they didn't want it to end. They had set out from Lyons four months ago. Their English was impeccable having spent eight months in Australia working and traveling a few years ago. They too were genuine travelers who thrived on the life. Though they were still working on getting a flight out of Istanbul, they were not worried. They too were quietly content and joyful, radiating an almost divine quality. We talked for nearly an hour exulting in the joy of travel, another of those treasured conversations I only seem to come by on the road.

They gave me about five pounds of food--noodles, rice, olive oil, sugar, salt, an onion and a bottle of lemon juice. They also gave me a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of detergent. The only item I rejected was three rolls of toilet paper. Even though they were under stress, they were effusive in their enthusiasm. I was happy to convey my love of France and tell them how sensational it is to follow The Tour de France and how much I was looking forward to returning this summer.

The conversation couldn't help but turn to food. We'd all been eating a lot of yogurt, but we longed for the multitude of flavors and variety of French yogurt. Turkish yogurt is all the same, though it comes in much larger containers, up to a gallon or more. The French offer a dazzling array of flavors. The larger grocery stores have an entire aisle's worth to choose from. It is staggering. Even more than flavored yogurt, they missed their cheese from back home. I was looking forward to the 500 gram containers of couscous and potato salad to be found in the deli departments of French supermarkets. They comprise a large part of my diet in France, mixing them with ravioli and cassoulet and quiche.

So now I have four days of playing the tourist in Istanbul. I will get to know this city very well if the weather permits.

Later, George

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Tekirdağ, Turkey

Friends: Winter has most definitely descended upon Turkey. When I returned to the highway after a slight climb up from the port of Gelibolu yesterday, I was greeted by a blanket of snow covering the countryside. Though the four-lane divided highway was clear, plows were still at work finishing off the job.

Clouds still hovered above, but not the thick, dark, menacing, low-lying, precipitating clouds of the day before. These were much thinner and lighter, giving hope that the sun might make an appearance after a several day absence.

A calm and stillness lay upon the land as well. The road was wet and slushy in spots, but I could pedal away with joy and delight once again. My legs were effortlessly spinning along at fourteen mph. The day before it required an all-out effort to go seven mph. I could spend all day at it with no sites to see or necessity to seek the Internet.

All was well until I came to a 1,200 foot ridge, a three-mile climb that had me shedding layers and also pausing to keep the sweat at bay. It was a perilous descent trying to restrain my speed, dodging the slush and keeping a wary eye out for ice.

It was 42 miles to the first town, Kesan. The clouds contained themselves and didn't force me to seek an early hotel as the day before. The first entry road into the town hadn't been plowed and was a mess. I wasn't desperate for a grocery store. A service station market or restaurant would do, though the only one I had passed so far was without electricity or running running water, its pipes frozen. I joined a cluster of truckers, all smoking, in the unheated cafe to rest my legs and finish off my yogurt and corn flakes.

The second entry into Kesan was relatively clear, so I took advantage of it. In less than half a mile I came to a small grocery store where I could restock my yogurt. A bit further İ picked up a doner kebab, which I ate at a nearby Internet cafe that had heat.

I took off my shoes and socks and booties and put them on the radiator. I was given a pair of slippers and also a small carton of apricot juice. Usually its tea, but the juice was more to my liking. I limited myself to half an hour, just enough time to eat the doner, not wanting to squander a moment of riding time when it was as good as it was, never knowing when it would turn nasty once again.

Despite the cold, these were the best riding conditions I'd had in days and I was determined to take full advantage of them. I hoped to ride right to dark, not wanting a hotel to tempt me. I wanted to camp in the snow, though not on it.  I was hoping to find a forest that had bare patches of ground, or at least snow not so thick that I could brush aside.  The terrain to that point hadn't shown much promise--mostly treeless and covered with a couple of inches of snow. If need be, I would do as Zekeriya and the German cyclist I met, and ask to pitch my tent at a service statıon, which they assured me was accepted practice in Turkey.

I passed the last town for forty miles an hour-and-a-half before dark. It felt great to be fully committed to camping. Half an hour later a billboard advertised a service station 15 miles away. The hilly terrain would make it difficult to reach it before dark, but if need be I could manage some night-time cycling with the bright white snow marking the roadside. I guessed though that there would be others before it, as generally a billboard advertising a servıce station was a clue that there were a couple of rivals preceding it, so those loyal to the one advertising itself wouldn't be tempted to stop at its competitors.

And such was the case on this main highway linking Istanbul with Greece and the rest of Europe.  I came to gas station fifteen minutes later.  I didn't really want to stop. Fortunately it didn't have much to offer and I could keep riding.
Three miles later, just as I hit 70 miles, after nearly seven hours on the bike for the day, a billboard announced a service station 500 meters ahead. It was now less than half an hour to dark. Hopefully I'd encounter a benevolent staff that would let me put my tent down somewhere. Benevolent they were and then some.  They actually offered me a small room with a couch. It wasn't heated, nor could one of its windows fully close, but it was like a palace to me.

One of the two attendants, both about 60, spoke a little French having lived in Paris for seven years. We exercised our minimal French while drinking a couple of glasses of tea sitting in front of a heater that only provided enough heat for me to remove one of my six layers. My two companions were also equally well-bundled, looking as if they were set to go out into the frigid cold.

After half an hour I retreated to my alcove and hung a clothes line with my socks and booties over my candle with my shoes along side. Not a single flake of snow had melted off my bike while I was absent. The room wasn't retaining much heat. My tent would have been warmer and cozier. If the room were larger I might have set it up, though the frigid concrete floor could well have quickly sent me back to the couch. I wrapped my self in my sleeping bag, and sat and read for a while with my headlamp. As barebones as were my accommodations, I felt down right regal after another great day on the bike.

Later, George

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Gelibolu, Turkey

Friends: Just when I thought the weather couldn't get any worse, I rounded a bend into an even fiercer gusting wind lashing me with an even thicker barrage of rain, utterly deflating what little thrill remained of bicycling along the storied Dardenelles, that narrow channel that separates Europe from Asıa.

The steady stream of ships heading to and from Istanbul and beyond to the Black Sea and Russia brought back memories of bicycling along the Yangtze River in China. It too was a major waterway that had a long and storied history going back centuries and in present times was clogged with huge freighters transporting all manner of goods. In both it wasn't just a scattered few freighters, but freighters strung across the waterway and closely stacked bows to sterns as if they were drafting one another.  It almost looked unrealistic, like a Hollywood dramatization to exaggerate the quantity of ships. It was frightening to think there was so much stuff being transported.

I could hardly dwell on it as I worried about staying warm and in motion.  The lashing wind was just one of my problems. It wasn't much above freezing and I was getting soaked. I had given up on my wool gloves long ago, as they were too saturated to retain much warmth, and had resorted to my heavy winter gloves with plastic bags over them.  My fingers were barely functional, not that I was doing any braking or even shifting.

It was utterly ridiculous to be biking in such conditions, just how I like it. When I saw a pair of police cars with lights flashing coming towards me, I thought they were coming to my rescue.

I was hoping when I'd ferried across the Dardanelles yesterday from Çanakkale that the weather might at least be drier.  I thought there might be a "Straight Effect," with more precipitation on the eastern side of the straight,  similar to Lake Michigan's "Lake Effect," producing more rain and snow on eastern side of the lake. There did seem some initial validity to the theory, but it may have been more due to an "Afternoon Effect" of the sun gaining some strength, even though it failed to make an appearance.

I was able to bike through the Gallipoli Battlefield National Park, just across the Dardanelles, without being rained upon, though the weather remained sultry and windy. I had the park virtually to myself. It extends over twenty miles, but I contented myself with the five mile stretch through the heart of it, the part thickest with monuments and cemeteries and where the worst of the WWI fighting took place. There were climbs steeper than ten per cent, made much steeper by the stiff head winds, up to the ridge where trenches between the invading Allied forces and the Turks lay no more than twenty-five feet apart.

The several month long battle in 1915 was one of the more horrific and hard fought of WWI, or any war, resulting in more than 50,000 deaths on both sides. Atatürk, as a colonel, led the Turks successful defense and his heroics led him to being promoted to general and fully launched his career. There are a number of plaques with his quotes stirring his troops to fight. Every Turk knows his command, "I don't order you to fight. I order you to die. In the time it takes us to die, other troops can come and take our places." He himself took a bullet to the heart that was deflected by his watch. The location where it happened is a sacred site to the Turks.

High on one ridge with a panoramic view is perhaps the most noteworthy cemetery, Lone Pine, devoted to the 5,700 Australians who died there. A lone pine stands in its center. It was planted in 1990 from a seed germinated from a pine cone an Australian soldier sent back to Australia in 1915. Quite a few New Zealanders lost their lives as well at Gallipoli. Many Aussies and Kiwis make pilgrimages to Gallipoli, inspired in part by the acclaimed movie "Gallipoli" starring a young Mel Gibson by Australian Peter Weir.

I had my quietest campsite of the trip on the fringe of the park, distant from any main road or human habitation or dogs, feeling no reverberations whatsoever from the hell on earth Gallipoli had been for tens of thousands during this campaign.

A hell of my own awaited me. I had to take down my tent and pack up in a drizzle, only slightly less fun than setting up in the rain. I was resigned to having to seek out a hotel if the rain didn't let up. It only got worse, meaning now I had wet socks from yesterday as well as the ones I was wearing.

It took three hours to reach the next town--Gelibolu--22 miles away. When I saw signs to a ferry wharf I was fully prepared to hop aboard if there was one to Istanbul 175 miles away. But no, the ferry just crossed the Dardanelles. With a population of 29,000 and as a gateway to the National Park there were several hotels to choose from.

The first I tried was closed. The next one had no electricıty. Finally, the third had a room and it came with a heater, just what I needed. I strung a clothes line in front of it and hung up my gloves and three pairs of just washed socks and draped the rest of my clothes around the room. The heat didn't extend much beyond a foot from the heater, but that was enough.

I had bought a paper the day before to stuff into my shoes that night to draw out the moisture, as the candle in my tent didn't generate enough heat to dry much of anything. I needed the rest of the paper today for my truly soaked shoes.

On page five of the paper were a couple of paragraphs on Turkey's prime minister Erdoğan finishing second to the head of Wikileaks in a poll of Time magazine's readers for its Man of the Year. That should have been page one news. I had no idea he was receiving so much attention back home or that there was such a strong Turkish community voting on such matters.

He recently sent a couple of fire fighting planes to help Israel douse its worst forest fire ever. Perhaps that brought him some extra attention. It has been a prominent story here, as Israel and Turkey have effectively cut off relations since last May when Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on a Turkish boat trying to deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza. Seeking resolution to that issue has been a top story ever since.  The Turks are demanding an apology and reparations to the families. Everyone has reacted with great favor to Erdogan's gesture helping Israel with its fire fighting.

If the winds don't let up, it could take me four days to reach Istanbul, less than 175 miles away. I notice British Air has bargain Christmas Day flights. If I can switch my flight home from Athens a month later without much penalty, I may have to do it. It wasn't part of the plan to be biking this far north in December and January. I'd be somewhere in the warm and sunny climes of the Middle East if Syria hadn't denied me entrance. I've been very glad to get to know Turkey better, but I don't need much more than the two months I've had.

Later, George

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Ezine, Turkey

Friends: This Aegean coastal weather remains in flux. Temperatures ought to be in the 50s. Yesterday morning it was 26 when I broke camp and didn't warm up enough until early afternoon to melt the patches of ice along the road. Usually I put on my booties to keep my feet dry.  Now I wear them to keep my feet warm.

The sun was not to be seen all day. At least there was no wind to speak of for a change until late in the afternoon when a breeze descended from the mountains to the east bringing with it a light sprinkling. Light or not, it was wet and about the last thing I needed. It is no fun setting up my tent in the rain and even less fun retreating into it for the night with wet clothes.

My candle was down to its last inch, probably not enough for the four hours I'd be sitting in my tent before sleep. I hadn't needed it for weeks until the night before and would certainly need its modicum of warmth this night when I was battling both wet and cold. The first store I tried didn't carry candles, but luckily the next one did.

Luck was with me again when I came upon a grove of big-trunked old olive trees with sprawling branches that provided some shelter, enabling me to erect my tent without more than a few drops wetting it. The candles didn't provide enough heat to much dry my gear, but they did make a welcome dent in the cold. At least the only thing wet I had to put on against my skin the next morning were my tights. It had warmed up to 42, not such an intolerably cold temperature. My body temperature soon had the tights relatively dry.

The sun had returned after a day's absence. The forecast calls for two sunny days and then more rain, just as I will be heading east along the bay to Istanbul for my final 200 miles after I cross the Dardanelles into Europe tomorrow.

For the third time in two weeks since leaving Adana I encountered cyclists heading southward to Syria and warmer temperatures. It was an English couple in their late 30s. They were the fourth husband and wife team I've met, all of different nationalities--Swiss, Polish, French and English. The only lone cyclist has been a German. The English were two-and-a-half months into their dream trip--England to South Africa. They were worried about their visa to Syria, as it had expired. They weren't able to renew it in Istanbul and were told they couldn't do it in Ankara, the capital, either. The wife was planning to fly back to England from Ankalya to take care of it at the Syrian embassy in London.

Last night for the first time in over two weeks since leaving Adana I was without a newspaper to read. It was back to Lucretius and "On the Nature of the Universe", the fifth of six books I brought with me. I welcomed the break from the Turkish newspapers, as they've finally become a bit repetitive with story after story about Turkey not being worthy of the EU and the upcoming elections and student unrest and Premier Erdoğan wanting to sue the US for the Wikileak's accusation that he has eight Swiss bank accounts. There are still the odd interesting stories such as a crack-down on institutes in Istanbul that guarantee that they can cure stuttering in a week and the big surge of knife orders for all the knife factories in Bursa, Turkey's knife manufacturing center, for the Feast of the Sacrifice holiday.

There have been two student demonstrations recently against the ruling AKP party and its Islamic slant. It has been in power since 2002 and will most likely win the upcoming elections. It will be the longest Turkey has been ruled by the same party since its inception in 1923. Even though the police reacted with violence to the students and their egg-throwing, AKP officials acknowledge that the students have a right to demonstrate. They all say Turkey is a democracy, a point they overly emphasize, as some doubt how much of a democracy it is.

The president commented, though, the eggs could have been put to better use in omelets. Omelets would not have brought the students all the attention they have gotten. Columnist after columnist has tried to fathom what has ticked the students off, as they don't seem to have anything specific to be riled about, unlike the students in Great Britain, upset that their fees are being tripled.

The unrest of the students is another symptom of the underlying divisions in the country.  The economy is thriving.  It is the fifteenth largest in the world, increasing at a rate only exceeded by China, but not everyone is benefiting. There are malls on the outskirts of the larger cities full of international companies from Nike to Dockers, but they are like ghost towns, built with anticipation for a demand that isn't quite there yet.

The EU issues an annual report on how Turkey is progressing towards qualifying for membership in the EU. Two prime areas where it still falls short are freedom of the press and women's rights. Turkey ranks 101st out of 109 countries on gender equality. Government officials profess to not care all that much about the EU issue, saying the EU needs Turkey more than Turkey needs the EU. Erdoğan says, "No matter what they say, Turkey is part of Europe." Still it has to disturb all to be continually rejected, to be considered not worthy. İn China last year a common refrain from government officials was their desire to meet "western standards," from the quality of its highways to encouraging people not to spit in public. The Turks refer to meeting "international standards."

The country doesn't seem overly Islamic other than the call to prayer five times a day, but there are fears that it is headed in that direction, what with scarves being allowed in the universities now and regular increases in taxes on alcohol and other subtle advances. But still there are billboards with women in bikinis that wouldn't be tolerated in a truly Islamic country.

Later, George

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Aliağa, Turkey

Friends: I knew it was cold yesterday morning, cold enough for me to put on tights for the first time since I came down from the mountains three weeks ago, but I didn't realize it was cold enough for snow.

A wicked northerly wind had blown in the afternoon before, plummeting the temperatures and bringing with it a light drizzle during the night. The wind was even colder and more fierce and ferocious the next day, lashing into me when I left the forest I was camped in and hit the road. It was a few minutes before I could begin riding, as I had a fair bit of mud to scrape off my tires and pry out of my brakes and from my cleats after pushing my bike through a muddy fıeld.

I made use of a trickle of water streaming down the slight incline where I met up with the paved road to help clean my bike shoes. I didn't enjoy one bit being pelted by the harshly driven, cold rain. A cold rain is bad enough, but even worse when it is accompanied by a merciless head wind.

In less than a mile, as I gained altitude, the rain turned into sleet and then snow. I didn't expect this at all. If it became snow I could brush it off and not be so wet, but it remained a nasty mix of sleet and rain and snow lashing me at a 45 degree angle. Though it didn't gather on the road, it was accumulating along side it and at the higher elevations. I quickly realized that I needed to put booties over my shoes, as my feet were growing cold and damp. It was a couple miles before I came to the shelter of a gas station, almost too late, but the coverings still made a difference, the first time I had needed them.

Izmir, Turkey's third largest city with a population of 2.7 million, was less than twenty miles away. With it looking dark and foreboding and no let up in the weather, I was reconciled to making it a short day and seeking refuge at the first affordable hotel I came upon.

I was soon swallowed up by the urban sprawl giving me some protection from the wind, but that made little difference in the chill that was penetrating to my bones. I passed a pickup truck making a delivery that had come down from the mountains. It was full of snow. A crowd of boys had descended upon it as it unloaded and were pelting each other with snow balls. I was lucky they didn't spot me.  I was looking for warm shelter of any sort to retreat to so I could regain feeling in my fingers. A grocery store had to do. I took my time wandering the aisles, waiting until the last minute to buy my daily pound-and-a-half container of yogurt, not wishing to hold anything cold in my hands.

It was just another mile to the heart of the city and the hotel district. I stopped at the first one I came to, a dive of a place, just as I prefer.  It had no heat, but it was dry and they let me bring my bike in and the bedroom included a stack of blankets and there was hot water in the shower down the hall. The bed, as in the only other hotel I've stayed at on this trip, wasn't meant for six-footers, but at least it didn't have a frame, so my ankles could dangle over the end in my down sleeping bag.

I lay huddled under the blankets for an hour eating and warming up before venturing out into the city looking for warmth. This was much like Wuhan where I was a year ago in China waiting to meet up with Stephen when it was hit by a freak cold spell and snow storm and only the most expensive of hotels had heat.

Like there it was hard to find a place with heat. I walked about trying to generate warmth, stopping at little cafes heated only by the open-sided heating elements roasting the spinning hunks of meat that were sliced for doners. Some went for as little as a lira, the cheapest I had encountered anywhere in Turkey. I was also thrilled to discover some of the sidewalk vendors selling sesame rolls from carts also had hard boiled eggs, another first in these travels. I stocked up.

A large shopping mall along Izmir's huge bay didn't even have heat, nor did the small restaurants that lined the streets. Everyone walked about with hunched up shoulders, tightly holding their arms to their sides, trying to retain some heat. Dogs lay tightly curled up in balls in whatever nook they could find protected from the wind.  An Internet cafe was warm enough that I could take off my hat and unzip my jacket, though not remove it. A small English language bookstore I searched out to buy a newspaper was retaining some warmth and had a couple of chairs for reading. The owner didn't object to me plopping down for a spell after I purchased a newspaper. The storm was front page news, as it had hit Istanbul the day before, blanketing it with snow. The bookshop owner said this was the first snow that Izmir had had in ten years.

I found some encouragement from weather.com. It reported it would be sunny the next day and up to 45 degrees. Just give me a clear sky and I could cope with the cold. I had several layers in reserve that I had yet to put to use. I just needed to dry out my shoes and tights and I'd be set to go. Maybe I wouldn't have to take a bus the rest of the way to Istanbul after all or escape Turkey altogether.  One option was to take a ferry over to Athens from Izmir.

As luck would have it, the next day was a Sunday, so I had little traffic to contend with on the six-lane highway skirting the bay out of town. I was equally happy that the road bypassed the surrounding snow-drenched mountains and has been flat all the way to Aliağa, allowing me to settle into a steady comfortable pace, freed from having to power up any climbs generating a sweat and having to unlayer and then layer back up for the descents. It's been fabulous to be merrily biking along once again, though for the first time in a couple of weeks the scenery no longer includes orange groves. They were still harvesting oranges in Ephesus, fifty miles south of Izmir. I'm back amongst the olive groves, my most likely camp site tonight. They've been fully harvested, but are now being pruned with chain saws and clippers.

There was less than a two hundred mile long banana belt at the southern most point of Turkey with banana vendors dotting the road side. There have still been orange sellers today in the cold.  Turkey is so agriculturally rich, just one of seven countries that are net food exporters, that some city streets and parks are lined with orange trees. There were oranges for the taking on the sidewalks. I picked up my fırst batch shortly before I arrived in Adana and met Zekeriya. When I shared them with him, he warned me that there is an inedible wild strain of oranges. And so these were. They looked normal, but their insides were mostly pulp and yellowish rather than orange and very sour and bitter.

That was just one of two food faux pas I've committed so far. The first was buying a container that said yogurt, but was a cheese spread. Both David and I made the same mistake in a small shop early in our travels. What David thought was yogurt was actually butter, which was even less use to him than the cheese spread was to me.

He offered me some of the butter to spread on my bread as we sat along the road picnicking. I was happy to give it a try.  Then I saw him take a huge spoonful.  He had noting to spread it out.  I somewhat gagged as I anticipated him thrusting it down his throat.  But instead he flung it on to the dirt, shocking me more than if he had gobbled it down.  He said he couldn't possibly use the entire container and didn't care to carry more weight than he needed. That was when I fully realized,that if a spoonful of butter could make a difference to him, he truly was obsessed with limiting his load to the bare minimum, not even bringing a towel, using his shirt or pull over to dry off after washing.

I quickly said that I would have taken it.  He gladly gave me the rest of his butter. I would occasionally get the last few swigs of a liter container of juice that he didn't wish to carry. Every morning he was eager to find a garbage can to rid himself of his several ounces of litter from the night before.

He carried three water bottles, just as I did, but never had water in more than one of them until the last moment of the day before camping, sometimes not finding any and having to rely on mine, as I tried to keep my three bottles near capacity at all times. On long ascents he would pour water out of his bottle to lighten his load. He would have fit right into the peloton, where the racers toss aside bottles as soon as they are empty and throw them away empty or not before the day's sprint to the finish.

One of my great food discoveries was a bit of a gamble--a hard-plastic pie plate full of a hard-packed, shredded food that looked like it might be a snack. It was moderately priced, so I took a gamble on it. An older man in the store pointed at it and gave me a pat on the back, congratulating me on my choice. A guy working in the store pointed out a bottle of syrup, implying that it went with it, but it was a bit pricey.  I was willing to try whatever it was on its own.

When I gave it a taste, it was very dry and tasteless, but had a vaguely familiar taste. After a few moments I realized it was a flattened version of shredded wheat.  Broken up, it went perfectly with yogurt. I later learned that it is a dessert that one pours warm milk on and then honey or syrup. I may be the only person in all of Turkey eating it with yogurt. It has become a regular part of my diet, something I have nearly every day, except on those rare occasions when I find cornflakes.

Later, George

Friday, December 10, 2010

Selçuk, Turkey

Friends: Turkey's Mediterranean coast line abounds with ruins 2,000 years old and older. If they had any sort of bicycle connection, I'd be stopping several times a day and making detours left and right to give them a look. But no, they are just ruins that all look the same after a while, so I've just been giving a glance to those that are right on my route, awaiting Ephesus, the class of the ruins and the only World Heritage Site among them.

Most of those I've seen truly are ruins, a rubble of rocks and stones only minimally restored and uncovered. When I entered the ruins of Olympos a week ago through the back entrance from the beach, I reached the front entrance without being aware of ruins at all they were so overgrown. The 15,000 seat amphitheater in Side was closed for restoration, so I could only be impressed by its exterior walls. The agora, the open space for commerce in Graeco-Roman cities, leading up to it, was typical of most of the ruins, haphazardly littered with fallen pillars and large stones that had been the building blocks for assorted structures.

Having seen the ruins of Pompei and Angor Watt and Tikal and Machu Pichu and Palenque and the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian, these were all quite trivial. And I'm sorry to report Ephesus wasn't much more impressive. I arrived early this morning, much earlier than I anticipated, well before they were open, thanks to a four a.m. deluge that flooded my tent, forcing me to make a quick evacuation.

I'm not sure if I was lucky to have been staying in a campground or not, as the campground had such a hard surface it didn't allow for any drainage. If I'd been in a forest, it would have been a different story. But the rain came down so fast and hard, I may have been swamped there as well. At least in the campground I had the refuge of the bathrooms to retreat to.

The road this morning was an obstacle course of mud and rocks and other debris that had washed down from the hillsides, so I might have been caught in a flash flood if I hadn't been in a campground. I chose to pay to camp as I found myself in Kusadasi, a large port and tourist town, with dark descending. I feared the twelve mile stretch from Kusadasi to Ephesus would all be built up with no possibility of wild camping. Turns out it wasn't and there would have been some good forest camping.

But I didn't mind at all a shower and a worry-free night in a safe zone, with no panic stabs to the heart when I heard a dog bark or the rustle of leafs or the snap of a twig.  It was a rare pleasure to take an evening meander on the bike.  My ride took me along the beaches of Kusadasi and to the dock where a huge cruise ship lay at anchor and past the blocks and blocks of tacky souvenir shops and some of the 700 hotels in this sea-side resort.

My early arrival at Ephesus allowed me to circle its circumference and peer in from its two entrances before it opened and bus loads of tourists from the cruise ship descended upon the place. I could see that these ruins hardly warranted the twenty lira entry fee. Ten maybe, even though that is close to my daily budget. A large crane marred the one photo I would have liked of the 25,000 seat amphitheater built into a hillside.

Ephesus also offered a couple of Christian pilgrimage sites. The apostle John and the Virgin Mary lived out their lives nearby. John wrote his Gospel here. A church built over his tomb in Selçuk, just two miles from Ephesus, also lays in ruins on a hillside. Mary's home is four miles beyond Ephesus up a long, steep climb out in the countryside. St. Paul also lived in Ephesus for several years. His letter to the Ephesians is one of the books of the New Testament.

Next significant site up the coast, 250 miles away, is the ancient city of Troy, another set of ruins. They don't promise much either, as Lonely Planet says a huge wooden Trojan Horse was placed at its entrance to give the tourists something to photograph. Whether or not the site stirs the blood, I will at least gain a first hand image to associate with the storied site that Homer immortalized. Tomorrow morning I will be passing through the city where Homer lived, Izmir, Turkey's third largest city.

It remains dank and overcast. I need a splash of daylight to dry out my soaked tent or else I will have quite a bit of swabbing to do this evening after I set it up and before filling it with my gear. At least I saved my sleeping bag before the water level inundated me this morning.

Later, George

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Milas, Turkey

Friends: As I sat in the faculty lounge with Adnan, another bicycling university English teacher, before joining him for his eight p.m. class, he warned me his students could be a bit rambunctious. It is the nature, he explained, of the evening classes. The students have had a long day and are restless and not so attentive.

It is one of the reasons teachers are paid extra for such classes. It is an inconvenience, as well, particularly for those with a family such as Adnan, who has two children, nine and seventeen years old. Adnan, though, is one of those who offers to teach such classes. He welcomes the extra money, as despite Turkey's thriving economy, he's not feeling as much of the benefits of it as he would like.

The university where he teaches in Muğla has 25,000 students, more than a third of the city's 65,000 residents. It is six miles from the city center, not conducive for a night-time bike ride, so we drove out, my first travel other than by bike since arriving in Turkey nearly seven weeks ago. The campus was aswarm with students even at that hour. There aren't enough classrooms to serve all the students during normal hours, so classes run from eight in the morning until ten in the evening.

Adnan and I lost track of the time as we talked biking. Once I learned that Adnan was one of the organizers of a local four-day annual bike tour (http://www.muglabisiklet.org/ ) that he and his club started four years ago around a nearby bay, that's all I wanted to talk about. They were inspired by a ride a couple of his friends happened upon while visiting Santa Cruz, California. Such an event had never been attempted in Turkey. Their ride has become such a success, they have to limit the number of participants to less than 200. They have inspired similar mini-tours around the country.

Like the grand daddy of such rides, RAGBRAI--the several decade old ride across Iowa, which Adnan was unaware of--they enlist trucks to carry all the gear of the participants and arrange large group campsites. Two Americans from the air base outside of Adana participated in the last. He'd like to attract more riders from outside Turkey and make it a truly international event.

When we rushed into the classroom two floors below a few minutes late there was loud chatter coming from all corners. My appearance somewhat stilled the commotion. Several students cleared a space for me to sit beside Adnan's desk. He introduced me as an American bicycling around Turkey and said that they could ask me whatever they wanted. The first question was where was I from in America. At the news I was from Chicago that immediately set off a flurry of questions about the Bulls and the several Turkish players in the NBA.

These were younger students than those I addressed in Adana. I was asked if I knew various Turkish pop singers. I had to reply in the negative to all of them. Someone wanted to know my email address so he could send me some Turkish music. "How old are you," someone blurted. At my response of 59 another interjected, "That's old."

They wanted to know what my job was and if I was retired. Adnan had told me to keep my answers as simple as I could, so I couldn't fully explain that I like my messengering job so much that I've never considered it work, so, to a degree, I've been retired ever since I left a corporate administrative assistant job over 35 years ago. I just said that I'm not retired, and that I like my job so much that it doesn't even seem like work since I enjoy riding the bicycle so much. I consider it fun.

My every response was followed by animated kibitzing all round, so I could barely hear or fully understand the next question. I had to rely on Adnan at times to explain what was being asked. He also offered a quick Turkish translation of most of my responses.

After failing to recognize any of Turkey's present pop fıgures, I was asked what I thought of Atatürk. I said learning about what a great man he was and the many things he did to establish modern Turkey was one of the highlights of my visit to Turkey and that when I returned to America I would search out a biography of him to learn even more. That drew a round of applause. I was also applauded when I said I have traveled in so many countries it is impossible for me to learn the language wherever I go, but I like being an example that one does not need to speak the language of a country to travel there.

To the marriage question I replied that from my earliest years I never wanted to get married. My parents were supposedly happily married, but hardly shared any interests and barely even seemed to be friends. If that was marriage, I wasn't interested. If I was going to spend my life with someone, I wanted that person to be a best friend. I've had girl friends that were that way, but we were never interested in having children, so there was no need to get married. Plus I liked to travel too much to settle down. That drew thumbs up from a bunch of the boys.

I was asked if I drank beer. I said no, so that I'd make a good Muslim. That brought a round of exclamations saying, "We drink beer and we are Muslims." Someone asked if I had a place to stay that night and said I was welcome to stay at his apartment. Others shouted out that I could stay with them too. I told them I was already taken care of.

At one point several of the students in the front row started calling me Sugar Uncle. Adnan said that is a term of respect. After half an hour someone asked if he could have his picture taken with me. Adnan said that would have to wait until the class was over. When that moment arrived everyone rushed up to the front of the class and swarmed around me, initially for a group photo, and then they took turns having their own private photo with their cell phone. Everyone, boys and girls, gave me a handshake and thanked me.

It was another remarkable testimony to how desperately hungry young Turks are to meet an American and try out their English. It was almost unfathomable to them to have one in their midst. As with Zekeriya in Adana, Adnan had no space for me to sleep over, but had no problem finding students to put me up.

After initially connecting up with Adnan earlier that afternoon at a restaurant beside Atatürk's statue in the center of Muğla, we were joined by two of his students who he had arranged to be my hosts. It was a half mile walk to their apartment. It was nearly identical to the one I stayed at in Adana--a sparsely decorated rectangular living room lined with five couches, a hallway leading to three bedrooms and a small kitchen. The students prepared a dinner of finely chopped eggs and potatoes that they fried and served in the pot they were cooked in. They called it "student food" and "yumpat"--the "yum" from "yumarta" for egg and "pat" for potatoes.

They spread a newspaper on the living room floor for a tablecloth and five of us sat around it, stabbing at the food with forks and supplementing it with bread, cheese, olives and jam. The jam was an after thought when an older roommate came in and figured that was something the American would like.

Only one of the four spoke enough English to maintain a semblance of a conversation, greatly assisted by a pair of dictionaries. He had to do a considerable amount of translating for everyone else. At one point he said, "We are all Kurdish. We are like the blacks of America."

"Then one of you will become president," I replied.

"I don't think so," he said.

Unfortunately his English wasn't adequate to explain the stone-throwing culture of the east they all grew up in. Later, when he said he didn't like to use the library, I asked if it was because he felt discriminated against as a Kurd. He said, "No, they don't know we're Kurdish. I can't explain." It is unpleasant enough, though, that rather than using the free Internet the library provides, he'll go to an Internet cafe and pay for it despite his limited funds. They don't have a television in their apartment. If he wished, he could watch DVDs of American movies at the library to help with his English, but even that can't lure him.

One of the roommates came from the city where David and I were so violently attacked by gangs of kids trying to knock us off our bikes. There was a lot of animated Kurdish conversation after each exchange of English. It seemed as if some of them were trying to decide if they cared to accept the American in their midst. Feeling like second class citizens clearly left a chip on their shoulders. Still, a couple of them greatly longed to go to America, asking for my advice and wondering if marrying an American would gain them entry. One wanted to know if joining a bicycle club would help him get a visa. I'm not one to discourage anyone from riding a bicycle, so I said, "It wouldn't hurt."

Two of the four came from families with ten children. Another was to be married in six months and wanted to have twelve children, enough to field a soccer team. There was the usual religion question. It is such a part of their lives here, being called to pray five times a day, it is at the forefront of their thought. They think they are more devoted to their religion than people of any other faith, and they might be right.

We were up until well after midnight, even though they knew I normally go to sleep at nine pm in my tent. A platter of cookies was brought out at midnight along wıth a two liter bottle of coke. Two of them had classes starting at eight the next morning, but they were in no hurry to go to bed.

Two of them asked if they could be Facebook friends and sent me requests then and there on their cellphones. I was able to confirm them while I had some Internet time after my session wıth Adnan's class and he did some further teaching. They were thrilled to have an American Facebook friend, and had already perused my profile and photos when I returned from my classroom appearance.

Breakfast was another round of "student food," with a loaf of fresh baked bread. One asked, "Do you eat bread in America?" They were going to be late to class, but their session with a bonafide English-speaker would more than make up for it. All the courses of the English majors are English--four of them taught by three different teachers. As first year students, they had more than a leg-up on learning the language. If eagerness counts, they will be fluent before the year is out.

Later, George