Thursday, March 24, 2011

Alice and Bobbi Publish A Book

Ride your bike coast-to-coast across America and you'll be showered along the way with people asking, "Are you going to write a book about it?" Alice and Bobbi, a couple of recently retired Midwestern women, hadn't intended on writing a book about their cross country bike ride when they set out, but succumbed to all the urgings with "Across America By Bicycle."

When I discovered it on the bookshelf at the local Border's book store I didn't know whether to say "Thank you" or "Oh no, not another." I am gladdened that such books are published, but saddened that most of them are self-published efforts by authors with little writing experience or ability to give much more than a sketch of what they're trying to write about. I approach such books with trepidation. Though I am always happy to relive my own cross country trip by reading of another, all too often I am soon soured by the heap of cliches and barely edited trip journal that most pass off as a book. It becomes more of an ordeal to plow through the book than to make the ride itself.

It was promising that Alice and Bobbi found someone willing to publish their book, Terrace Books of the University of Wisconsin, and that both had a facility with the language--Alice as a retired editor and Bobbi as a retired English teacher. From the very start it was clear that the writing was polished and that they promised to offer up a fresh angle on a long bike trip from the perspective of a cycling demographic that doesn't ordinarily contribute to the touring cycling genre.

Alice and Bobbi followed Adventure Cycling's northerly route from Astoria, Oregon to Bar Harbor, Maine. Though they were lifelong cyclists, this was their first significant trip, and also their first trip together. They encountered quite a few other cyclists along the way, but acknowledged that the vast majority were male and the rare women they met were accompanied by a guy or were part of a group, often serviced by a sag wagon carrying their gear.

They began their trip intent on camping as much as they could, but soon softened and blew their budget by staying in hotels whenever there was a threat of rain or mosquitoes or bears or rattlesnakes or if it was too hot or if they simply wanted to. Not once did they wild camp, though they knew it was possible. Nor were they hesitant in accepting rides, even a short climb out of a campground to start the day. It wasn't cheating, they said, but rather "bumps," their terminology for getting bumped ahead, once by 180 miles when they rented a car to bypass an area that was smokey from forest fires.

Though their book fit the blueprint of the touring genre complaining about wind and rain and climbs and dogs and heat, they added several new categories of complaints. One was shoddy hotels. They were aggravated by stained carpets so soiled they avoided walking on them with bare feet, thin and scratchy towels, no Kleenex, no continental breakfast. Not every meal or waitress was agreeable either. At times they would walk out of a restaurant even before ordering.

Another complaint unique to the grandmotherly set was taking offense to bike mechanics who showed them no respect, not thinking they could manage the trip. Alice was particularly irked that not until near the end of their trip did anyone compliment her on the vintage 1982 Holdsworth she was riding.

Early on they confess that as much as they are enjoying their ride, it wasn't quite as leisurely as they had hoped. They both were presented the opportunity to curtail the trip when Bobbi's husband needs an operation and Alice's daughter decides to leave her husband. They do take a break to attend to such matters, but readers can be happy they press on, enjoying it too much to call it off.

Readers can be equally happy they made the effort to turn their journals into a book and went beyond simply publishing their daily diaries, greatly elaborating on them and thoroughly addressing, like the editor and school teacher they once were, the questions they were asked along the way and that they had themselves before setting out and that they were asked afterward.

Since they were only casual acquaintances before they set out, many people were particularly interested in how well they got along. They admitted they both had strong opinions on certain matters, but that they always managed to work things out. They saved themselves some aggravation by early on declaring a fifteen minute rule before one could go into a tizzy over some lost item, as more often than not it turned up within fifteen minutes.

They were also frequently asked about safety issues and if they ever felt threatened. They had similar concerns themselves, but learned that such fears were greatly exaggerated. If they felt concern about someone they encountered along the way they'd let him know, "We're highly trained in the martial arts."

Their humor and joy in doing what they were doing, along with their unique perspective, made this an entertaining and insightful travelogue and a most worthy contribution to the genre. It may be the only one that the riders regularly sought out massages and snuck in a facial.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Turkey Slide Show

My friend Zekeriya, the bicycle fanatic I met while cycling around Turkey, contributed greatly to the slide show I put together of my two months in Turkey. Not only did he provide me great insight into his country the day I spent with him, but after I returned he sent me three movies about Ataturk and answered any question that came up as I continued my research on Turkey. He was very curious about how my first presentation went. This is what I wrote him:

Zekeriya: Thanks to all your contributions, both when I visited you and afterward, I had loads of great material for my presentation that I could enthusiastically share. The most difficult thing was not being able to include everything I would have liked to. I could have gone on for an hour or more recounting the day I spent with you and your family and your students, not only in the classroom, but the night before at their apartment. I could easily say that was the highlight of my time in Turkey.

I made putting together the presentation no easier by diving into the library upon my return and reading quite a few books on Turkey, giving me all that much more material. But I couldn't help myself. Whenever I submerge myself into a country for a month or more thanks to my bicycle, as I've managed to do quite a few times over the years (Iceland, Bolivia, Morocco, Japan, China, Australia, Uganda, Mexico, South Africa, India, France, and on and on), I'm always eager to submerge myself even deeper when I return, reading as many books as I can find about it, not only travel books, but histories and novels and biographies of its exceptional citizens. Turkey was no exception.

In the past two months I've read two 500 page biographies of Ataturk, four books by your Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk, several cultural studies and several travelogues. It becomes infectious. As I learn more, I want to learn even more. I often discover some startling fact or story that I'm surprised no one else has mentioned. I'm constantly going to Wikipedia to add to or verify or expand on something I've come upon. When it comes time to give my presentation, I end up having bushels of material, much much more than I can cram into an hour. It takes several run throughs, eliminating and eliminating, until I get the running time down to an hour.

I only manage to show half the slides I initially hope to. My commentary on a slide of the statue of Saint Nicholas in his home town of Demre was just going to be a mention that he lived in the 300s and evolved into Santa Claus, but I couldn't help but tell the whole story, how his concept of anonymous after-dark gift-giving spread to Europe, and then the New World with the Dutch and how the Dutch translation of Saint Nicholas sounded like Santa Claus to the English settlers, so that's what they called him. And also that Saint Nicholas was at one point the third most popular Christian religious figure behind Jesus and the Virgin Mary and that hundreds of churches and monasteries have been named for him. I also had to tell my audience that that's not the only Dutch-Turkish connection. The tulip is originally from Turkey, not Holland, as everyone assumes. The Dutch were just the ones to popularize it into a global phenomenon.

I couldn't help but mention that among those searching for Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat was the astronaut James Irwin, the eighth man to walk on the moon. If I really wanted to boggle my audience with trivia I could have mentioned the first seven and how many in total (12) have walked on the moon, things that I immediately wanted to know after I learned that Irwin was the eighth, but I resisted that.

One of the joys of travel for me are all the fascinating, oddball things I learn--things that make me wonder, "Could that be true?" or "Why didn't I know that?" I had a slide of an upside down American flag outside a hotel on the outskirts of Malayta. That didn't make the cut, though I wanted to use it as an introduction to my entry into the dangerous Kurdish country and also so I could mention the curious fact that Malayta was where the guy who tried to kill Pope John Paul was from and further evidence that this region has long had a culture of violence. I'm perpetually drawn to asides that are on the border of being irrelevant and most telling and sheer lunacy.

I read the Turkish Flag Ceremony allegiance to my audience that school children recite to begin their day as a lead in to Ataturk, as he is included in the pledge. I could have gone on about Ataturk, as could just about any Turk, until everyone in the audience was sleep bound, but I kept it to five minutes. I told how intensely proud the Turks are of him and that people would ask me, "What do you think of our Ataturk." At first I respond that learning about Ataturk was one of the great discoveries of my time in Turkey, that he was indeed an extraordinary leader and visionary.

But when I saw that it disappointed Turks that I hadn't known about Ataturk before I came to Turkey, as they thought everyone in the world knew all about him, I would then say that one of the reasons I came to Turkey was to learn more about Ataturk, and to pay homage to him. If that were true, I would have gone to his mausoleum in Ankara. I wished I could have, but I didn't have the time. Next time. Turkey's just too big of a country, nearly as big as France and Germany combined, the two largest countries of the EU. That brought some gasps from the audience who didn't realize the size of Turkey.

On the subject of mausoleums, I informed my audience that we can thank Turkey for the word, as it derived from King Mausalus and his tomb in Bodrum, one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World. The word tantalize also comes from Turkey, derived from a King Tantalus who was tormented by water just out of his reach when he was dying of thirst. In addition to Mausalus' tomb, Turkey was home to a second of the Ancient Wonders, Diana's Temple in Ephesus.

Turkey's rich history abounds with the remarkable--its where Alexander the Great cut the Gordion Knot and Julius Casar proclaimed, "I came, I saw, I conquered." I could have made my audience stare at the photo of Abraham's birth cave in Urfa for half an hour going on and on about him and the Feast of the Sacrifice, but I restricted myself to saying it was one of many Biblical sights one could visit throughout Turkey. One could spend an entire holiday searching them out--the birth place of the Apostle Paul and the many places he lived, the home where the Virgin Mary lived out her life, the Seven Churches of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations, the tomb of the Disciple John and on and on.

I was sorry I didn't have a photo of villagers slitting the throat of a goat or sheep on the Feast of the Sacrifice so I could have talked about this important holiday to Muslims honoring Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his only son at the behest of Allah. I could have used the cave slide to launch into the story, and then how the holiday caused David and I some concern. We were unaware of it. We were leaving Lake Van the first day of this multi-day holiday and were greatly concerned that there was no traffic on the road. We feared the road might be blocked or the Kurdish region ahead was so dangerous no one went there.

I showed a road sign with several towns that included three of the six letters unique to the Turkish alphabet so I could tell about the undotted Turkish "i" and how it prevented me from accessing my email account and blog since my email password as well as my blog both have the letter "i" in them. It was a week before I met someone in an Internet cafe who explained the two "i's" on the Turkish keyboard. Someone asked in the Q & A how computer savvy the Turks are. I said they are extremely so and mentioned your considerable skills and those of the students you teach in your computer classes. I told them that Turkey is one of the top five countries producing computer spam along with the US, Russia, China and South Korea.

I had earlier told about the New York Times travel section taking a poll of its readers asking where they would most like to travel in 2011 and that Istanbul came out number one. I said that was a worthy choice. I brought it up again in reference to this computer question, as Istanbul coming out on top could be a little suspect. Enough Turks are so well attuned to the Internet, a few computer geeks could have easily inundated the poll. That was likely the case with the Time magazine poll of its readers asking who should be its Man of the Year. The Turkish prime minister came in second. That was extremely fishy, as I doubt if one in a thousand Americans or anyone in my audience has ever heard of Erdogan.

A woman in the audience wondered why I had no pictures of women in my slide show. That wasn't entirely true, as I had two photos of several scarfed women at Mevlana's tomb, as well as a woman wearing a scarf passing under a giant billboard of a blond haired woman advertising Turkey's largest chain of furniture stores and also some girls in photos of school children, but no close ups as I had of you and the students in Mugla and a group of soldiers.

I explained that I hadn't had any significant encounters with women and that they tend to be in the background. The two evenings I spent with students, though I met 30 or 40 on both occasions, no women were included. The two classes I attended had a small minority of women, not even 20 per cent. The treatment of women is one of those criteria that restrains the EU from accepting Turkey. Turkey ranked 101 of 109 countries in a recent UN survey of gender equality.

Someone also asked about the post-WWI genocide of Armenians. I said that it is such a taboo subject that the Nobel prize winning author Orhan Pamuk was charged with denigrating Turkish identity for merely being quoted in an interview for a Swiss magazine that one can not talk about the issue in Turkey. He faced three years in prison for his comment.

My photos of Cappodocia, especially those of tourists in hot air balloons drifting
overhead, were a hit. People too enjoyed the beauty of Lake Van and thought the various caravansaries along the Silk Road were spectacular.

Turkey made for a great trip and a great subject for a slide show. I appreciate all your contributions, especially the three movies of Ataturk you sent along. I learned things from all of them that weren't included in any of the books I read, even though no book can be written about Turkey without continual reference to him.

For further response from some of my audience, I've attached a few of their email comments:

Hi George--
Your talk on Tuesday night was amazing - educational, entertaining, inspiring.
Ride on... safely.

Congratulations, George, on another wonderful lecture at the Lincoln Belmont Branch Library on your cycling adventures around the world. Your introduction, presentation, images, and Q n' A on your two months of cycling and wild camping around Turkey was sensational. All of the patrons were very attentive, almost mesmerized, as you described, told stories, and displayed slides of the many historic sites and bustling urban areas unknown to many Westerners. The stories of the people you met, your university visits, and commentary of life in Turkey and Turkish interests in our culture was revealing for us all.

From: Hank
Enjoyed the presentation very much. It was interesting to get a glimpse first hand of how much you invest in the research process between a tour and a presentation. You end up coming off like a genius.

George, You gave a good talk. That may be the best I've seen. You were relaxed and fluid, sounding very practiced. I was going to ask, "If it were up to you, would Turkey be admitted to the EU?", but your opinion seemed to come through before the Q+A.

Hi George, Great presentation! I like the way you teach us a lot about history, religion, literature, politics, culture, etc., while talking about your travels. And, of course, you always have info about biking...and adventure stories to tell, too.