Sunday, March 29, 2015

Sunday, March 29, 2015 - 2 comments

Journey to Jordan #6: Ancient Amman

It's kind of a joke around our house that we're "ruin snobs."  (See this previous post.)  Living in the land of "ancient this" and "Roman that", we are spoiled rotten with arches, columns and underground cisterns.  We no longer jump at the opportunity to visit every vestige of an empire past just because it's in the neighbourhood.  (Though I must say that a "Seven Churches of Revelation" tour with an educated guide is still high on my bucket list.)

That said, what I do find intriguing is when the ancient is mixed in amongst the modern.  Take my usual Starbucks, for example.  It's right smack inside the old Roman city walls.  That to me is cool.  Coming across a local shepherdess grazing her sheep in the middle of Perge, having tea in a home whose yard is bordered on one side by Istanbul's Byzantine land walls, and shooting senior portraits of a girl in jeans and UGGs with a backdrop of a Roman harbour once sailed into by the apostle Paul - those are the kinds of interactions with ruins that I love the most.

So even though visiting "The Temple of Hercules" wasn't high on my list of things to do in Amman, the fact that it was located on the citadel right in the heart of downtown made me want to check it out.  

My friend-cum-tour-guide hailed us a cab, and we wound our way up the most central of Amman's seven hills (pretty sure it encompasses more than seven now...), our driver deftly navigating the crowded streets while watching a religious teacher preaching in the desert on his dashboard TV.  Immediately inside the gate, a series of stone signs took us through the parade of civilizations that had built, conquered, ruled from, worshipped upon or sold entrance tickets to this citadel.  Everyone from the Ammonites (Amman - get it?) to the Nabataeans (we were to see a whole lot more of their footprints in Petra) to the Romans, and the Ottomans have had their stake in this ground, all the way up to the Hashemite Kingdom, whose capital Amman is today.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world.  The hill is believed to be the place where Uriah the Hittite was killed, and it is crowned by monuments from its various past lives.

Temple of Hercules
Interior of a Byzantine church
Roman mosaic
Refugees make up almost half of Jordan's eight million people - two million Palestinians since the creation of Israel and nearly as many Syrians and Iraqis during the current war.  With urban planning not exactly keeping pace with the steady flow of newcomers, the city is a swollen sandstone and concrete forest with hardly a park to speak of.  But up on the citadel, a significant chunk of green space with a breeze and a view makes for a perfect picnic spot.  The hillside was dotted with families on blankets, clusters of teenaged girls taking Roman-selfies, and women collecting bags of what I can only assume were edible herbs and weeds.  When the wind picked up, the kite flyers appeared, and it was fun to watch Ammanis out enjoying the day in their city's ancient core. 

Layers of civilization - ancient and present day Amman

I'd heard a lot about Amman's "monotonous ugly brownness" - it is illegal to make a building that is anything but neutral sandstone or concrete - but I actually kind of liked the continuity.  (Maybe that's some leftover annoyance at the "Corinthian columns and mismatched paint" free-for-all that has taken over our once-uniform complex like a disease...)  Even so, it was still fun to spot little splashes of colour sprinkled around the city.

Walking down from the citadel, we came out of a neighbourhood and were greeted with an impressive Roman amphitheatre right across the street.  From there, we headed over to the souk - lacking in the medieval charm of Aleppo or Istanbul's covered bazaars, but still a colourful hub of activity.  Moving away from the more touristy shops on the periphery (think belly dancing skirts, kohl eyeliner and pirated DVDs) we headed into the section of the souk where locals come for fruit, vegetables, coffee, nuts and spices.  Best part:  snacky samples and the cart from which one can purchase gummi bears, gummi worms and fuzzy peaches! 

The Candy Man :)
By this point, we'd definitely earned some refreshment, and since we (okay, I) couldn't decide between the juice man and a coffee shop, we did both.  The fresh strawberry-banana-pineapple "smoothie" got my vote over the cardamom-laced Arabic coffee.  I'd been curious to try it and was glad for the experience, but I think I'll stick to straight Turkish coffee, which is apparently favoured by Arabs anyway.  

We finished out the evening with a trip up Jabal (Hill) Amman to Rainbow Street.  The street, which gets its name from a nearby cinema.  Al-Rainbow Street is one delicious string of cafes, burger joints, espresso bars, waffle sellers and funky bookshops.  (It's a very good thing I was full and tired by the time we got up there!)  A pop into a corner grocery shop to stock up on presents - Nerds and Skittles for the kids, parmesan cheese, pancake syrup and blueberry pie filling for the grow-ups - rounded out my tour of the city.

Rainbow Street caught my fancy because not only is it the place where the smartphone crowd come to sip and socialize, but the leafy boulevard also boasts some of the city's oldest and most charming villas, one of which was once home to King Abdullah's father and grandfather, the two previous kings.  It was the upper-middle class equivalent of picnicking beside the temple of Hercules.  And it showed me an Amman lives its present in the midst of its past.

Makes me excited for my first "latte in the shade of the Roman walls" when I get home.  :)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015 - 1 comment

Journey to Jordan #5: Drive-Thru Amman

Squat sandstone apartments piled one on top of the other.  Hills guaranteed to produce quads of steel.  Tiny shops with metal grates for doors selling ground coffee and fruit and eggs.  Men in long grey djellabas and women in tightly wrapped veils.  Giggling white-scarved schoolgirls little boys tangled up in kite strings.  The neighbourhood we called “home” in Amman was more or less what I expected of the capital of the Hashemite Kingdom.  

But a trip to the local Starbucks showed me that the slice of society I’d been exposed to thus far was only half the picture.  

I had every intention of a productive morning of work and had merely wanted a change of scenery from the apartment.  But sitting beside a window overlooking the 24-hour drive thru, I found the clientele far more fascinating than the Turkish history lesson I was supposed to be focused on.   

The fact that one can pull up to a window and get a caffeine fix at all hours of the night is amazing enough in itself.  But the kind of people who make a trip through the “latte lane” were ones I probably wouldn’t have otherwise seen, since they seem to move through the city hidden safely behind the tinted windows of SUVs and BMWs and aren’t out breaking a sweat on the seven hills.

Good little ethnographic researcher that I am, I pulled out my notebook and began to document what our host refers to as “The Californians of Amman.”

  • Silver BMW: Tight hot pink sweater, hot pink cell phone, gold watch, bleached blonde hair.  Texting.
  • Black Mercedes: Cream-coloured turtleneck, elegant tan silk headscarf, big sunglasses, silver watch.  Alternately texting and changing radio stations.
  • Black car (I’m bad at guessing makes and models):  McDonald’s sticker in the back window, prayer book with gold Arabic lettering in the back seat, passenger mirror held together with duct tape.
  • Grey Toyota: Passenger and driver, both female, are texting.  Navy blue men’s blazer hanging up in the back seat.
  • Shiny red convertible with the top down: driver is a rotund bald man in a navy and white track suit drumming his fingers to the beat on his steering wheel.
  • Pedestrian in the drive thru: woman with short spiky bleached-blonde hair, black tights under a black sweater with a diamond-studded Mickey Mouse on the front.
  • Black BMW: blonde lady in a white tunic and jeans with a red scarf around her neck, multiple parking pass stickers on her window, tablet lying in the backseat, texting.
  • Gold Audi: guy in a crisp white button-down shirt and jeans, sunglasses, alternately cleaning his nails, picking his cuticles, brushing crumbs off the passenger seat and buffing his phone screen.
  • Black Hyundai: girl with long, dark brown hair in a salmon-coloured shirt, credit card in left hand, texting with her right, backseat full of shopping bags.
  • Silver BMW, guy in a dark brown leather jacket, holding a cigarette out the window in his bandaged left hand, kids books piled up in the back window, Mac sticker on the back of the car.
  • Black BMW: guy in a navy blue suit with a burgundy tie with an ID tag clipped to it, dark sunglasses, checking phone and messing with air vents.
  • Silver Mercedes with the topper pulled off and a “Mercedes” sun shade folded up in the backseat: light blue button down with military insignia/pins on chest and shoulder, brown suit jacket hanging up in the back, putting in headphones to talk on his cell.
  • Gold sedan: stocky youngish balding guy in a long-sleeved black shirt talking on the phone with his left hand and trying to open a Marlboro package with his right, box of Kleenex in the backseat.
  • Silver SUV: girl in a grey t-shirt with long brown hair pulled up in a ponytail counting change and driving without touching the wheel
  • Beat up older silver BMW with dents and peeling paint on the roof: guy in a grey wool suit, red and white striped tie, NOT texting (!), Harley Davidson baseball hat in the back window.
  • Shiny silver BMW: guy in dark Aviators with a neat beard and mustache, big silver watch, grey hoodie with orange lettering on it.
  • Black SUV: girl with long black hair in a long-sleeved grey comfy shirt, a glass of tea (I assume) in her putting it in the cup holder and carefully applying hand lotion.
  • Teal Super Safari SUV: guy in a grey t-shirt, silver watch, big muscles eating a shawarma.
  • Dark grey sedan: two guys in dark suits, the mirror on the passenger side popped in like they’d park in a tight spot recently, driver with his head in his left hand leaning out the window, then checking his watch, then popping a breath mint from a green tin.
  • Black Range Rover with tinted windows: woman in a black blazer with bright red nails checking something in a red file folder on the passenger seat.
  • Dark grey Range Rover - woman with long straight black hair, no phone in hand (!), a large-faced watch on, sunroof open, grey t-shirt and sweatpants...oh, wait, now she’s got her phone out...
  • Tiny black KIA: stuffed full of two middle-aged men, the driver (who bears a remarkable resemblance to King Abdullah) fiddling with the bills in his left hand while talking and gesticulating wildly to his passenger with his right.
  • Pale yellow new VW Bug with the front VW logo bit curiously missing: big fake yellow Gerber daisy on the dashboard, girl with a red baseball hat, grey hoodie with brown fur trim and big sunglasses, brown wallet open on her lap displaying at least a dozen cards, left hand tapping on the car roof out her open window, right hand scrolling and swiping on a MASSIVE smartphone...and, oh, there’s the VW hood ornament lying on her backseat...
  • Dark grey Mercedes: two women in the front, both with long, flowing black hair.  Driver is in a neon yellow t-shirt with her nails painted an identically blinding shade.  Her passenger, in a long white t-shirt, has neon pink nails and a bracelet to match.  Driver holds up her gold iPhone over the steering wheel and tries to take a selfie, but when she can’t seem to get the right angle, she hands her friend the phone and strikes a pose...

    Proving yet again that the Middle East isn’t all teapots and carpets and veils.  

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #4: Audible Amman

The call to prayer that woke me at 4:20 on my first morning here was the most beautiful ezan I’d ever heard.  

It was so soft, so near and so pronounced that it sounded more like it was playing from a radio on my nightstand than sounding from a minaret outside somewhere.  I heard a single voice - not at all like the cacophony that always jerks me awake on the first night of a stay in Sultanahmet when all ten mosques within ear shot are competing with each other.  The voice was humble, with none of the drama and gusto of the muezzins back home.  No static or screechy loudspeaker effect, either.  No, this guy was pure pleasure to listen to, with vocals like a boy-band pop star gone religious.  

I could make out every word, and I was so intrigued that I wanted to stay awake and listen.  (Not that the rooster accompanying him really gave me a choice.)  When he finished the call, the melodic rise and fall of a Qu’ran recitation began, followed by the muffled sound of prayers coming from multiple mosques.  About fifteen minutes later, the ezan was sung again (that voice...) and then he repeated the words to the call in a speaking voice.

God is great.
There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His prophet.
Come and pray.  Come and pray.
To pray is better than to sleep....

For the first time I understand what all those guide book writers and romantic wandering nomads mean when they describe the call as “hauntingly beautiful” and “mesmerizing.”  

Clearly the key is to find someone to read it who sounds more like Bruno Mars and less like the rooster.


The fact that I was still getting over a bad cold when we got here meant I took the opportunity to get as much rest as possible.  Translation:  I slept (off and on) for fourteen hours the first night.  Lying in bed afforded me the opportunity to “listen to the neighbourhood” a whole lot.  It’s amazing how much you can learn about a place without even opening your eyes.  Here are my “audible first impressions”:
  • There is a nearby school whose “bell” is Fur Elise.... Must be a universal choice of bells, as many schools in Turkey use the same song.  (Right along with Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas.  Go figure.)
  • Lots of honking, screeching of tires and the occasional police or ambulance siren.
  • The birds are celebrating the arrival of spring.  One, in particular, sounds JUST like our doorbell at home, and it’s got me constantly thinking I need to jump up and see who’s there.
  • Apparently these are the first warm days they’ve had here, and all the neighbourhood kids are out in force.  The shrieks and laughter got particularly exuberant when several little boys were up trying to fly kites on their respective roofs.  Not much wind to help their cause, but I admire their tenacity.
  • There is a constant flow of trucks coming by with guys yelling over loudspeakers.  If I didn’t know better, I might assume they are spouting angry propaganda and be tempted to be afraid.  But the cadence of their voices and the length of the sentences sound exactly like the guys who drive around our neighbourhood yelling, “Potatoes, one lira!  Onions, one lira!  Watermelon, one lira!”  (For how garbled their words are over the PA, those guys back home might as well be speaking Arabic!)
  • Every fifteen to twenty minutes, a truck goes by playing a song that conjures up images of a Chinese ice cream truck - all tinny, like a discordant music box.  My hosts later confirmed my hunch - it’s the gas tank delivery guy.  He must literally just drive up and down the hills all day, because his song ebbs and flows but is never quite out of earshot.  I think I’ll be hearing it in my sleep.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #3: Edible Amman

Bottomless chips and salsa at Chili’s was not what I pictured for my first taste of Jordan.  Nor were the Triple Dippers - Boneless Buffalo Wings, Southwest Egg Rolls and Honey Chipotle Chicken Crispers with blue cheese, Ranch and honey mustard dip - that followed.  But when our friend that picked us up from the airport asked if we wanted “typical Jordanian food” or “American food you can’t get in Turkey,” we opted for the latter, figuring we’d have plenty of time for baba ghanoush and künefe the rest of the week.  

And, oh, did Chili’s deliver. 

The next day, when my roommate and I headed down to the neighbourhood grocery store to buy a couple of things for the next morning’s breakfast, we discovered we were living in an imported food gold mine.  The most dinky, unassuming little shops where men were buying cigarettes and kids were plunking coins down on the counter for Pepsi and candy stocked their shelves full of Bisquick and pancake syrup, Duncan Hines cake mix and frosting, Kraft singles cheese slices, tins of coconut milk, even microwave popcorn.  Modern and well-supplied as our Turkish grocery stores may be, most of those items can’t be found even in the fanciest foreigner-friendly ones.  

I’d better eat up the last of my tuna and Ramen noodles ASAP to make room for all these goodies in my suitcase!

(Don’t worry - our second dinner consisted of falafel, pita bread and some seriously creamy hummus.  Wouldn’t want to forget where we are....)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #2: Strangers on a Plane

A whole departure lounge full of travelers and there’s only one Turkish speaker within earshot - a woman with a whiny Istanbul accent jabbering away to her older sister on her cell phone.  

Across from us, a South East Asian looking couple (judging by her tiny face and tightly wrapped pink headscarf, I’d say Malaysian or Indonesian) talk softly and gaze affectionately into each other's eyes, his fingers toying with the threads at the bottom of the tunic she wears over pale floral print jeans.   They’re the kind that make you want to stare - not because they’re inappropriate but purely because they’re cute.

Down the aisle, a pair of Arabic-speaking girls who can’t be more than eighteen appear to be travelling alone.  Both wear black hijab framing their round faces, one with a long, loose grey t-shirt over black tights and gold flats, the other sporting similar tights tucked into black sequined UGG boots.  Grey T-Shirt has her head resting on UGG’s lap while UGG scans Facebook on her iPhone, her eyes smiling behind her huge black hipster glasses.

When we board the plane, it becomes apparent that the guy at the check-in counter had misunderstood our request for an aisle and a middle seat, and he has both of us in different corridor seats instead of next to each other like (we thought) we’d asked.   The blond woman to my left is, I assume, a Russian bride.  She speaks to her daughter in Russian and the little girl answers back in Turkish.  “Mommy, look at that plane!  Mommy, when will we take off?  Mommy, do they have colouring books?”  

When boarding is complete, we ask the flight attendant if we can switch to the two empty seats a row ahead of my roommate, and then proceed to invade the area that the bulky man by the window had clearly expected to have all to himself.  In an attempt to appease him in his seemingly hostile legs-sprawled-so-wide-they-take-up-half-my-space stance, I offer him some gum.  He waves a “no, thank-you” wave.  

A moment later, my roommate gives it a try and tells him in Turkish,  “Sorry we took up your row.  We were supposed to have seats together.”  

He shakes his head slowly - clearly not a Turk - and says haltingly in English, “Sorry, I...didn’t...understand.”  

She switches to English and explains the situation, to which he smiles and says, “No problem, no problem.”  He shifts his legs back into his own area and we settle in for the fifty minute flight to Istanbul.  

The couple behind us speaks an Asian language I don’t recognize.  The guy, looking rather out of place in his shorts and t-shirt, chats away happily from take-off to landing, laughing at his jokes far more than his soft-spoken companion does.  At the baggage claim in Istanbul, we spot the pair standing with the shy-but-in-love couple from the boarding area, and Chatty Boy is trying to teach the lot of them line dancing steps while they wait for their suitcases.  Peculiar.  

As we line up to check in at Royal Jordanian for our flight to Amman, I scan the outfits of our fellow-travelers.  The man directly in front of me looks like what I expected a Jordanian to look like - his long, flowing grey djellaba touches the floor and his red and white checked keffiyeh is tied around the top with a black cord.  The woman with him, while wearing a neatly tied beige headscarf, is decked out in a beige crushed velvet pantsuit that definitely does not qualify as “butt-covering.”  Two school-aged boys in matching grey sweat suits sit between them on top the baggage, eyes glued to the games they’re playing on their respective tablets.  The lady ahead of them, with another party, wears a long floral patterned veil that comes down well past her waist.  And the young woman with her - the one with the luxuriously flowing brown hair and the two screaming sons that make me think, “Gosh, I hope they’re not in our row” - is wearing a navy blue velour track suit with the word “Juicy” splashed across her bottom in hot pink script.  

I think my tunics and I will fall nicely somewhere in the middle.

As we settle in at our gate, a man is doing his namaz discreetly in the corner of the waiting area.  Over the next twenty minutes, three more men point themselves towards Mecca and do the same, one pair of them salaam-ing, standing and prostrating themselves almost in unison, even though they aren’t together.  It’s probably a good thing Mecca is the opposite direction from the ladies with the Victoria’s Secret shopping bags in the row across from us or those men might have had to start all over again. 

“So,” I think to myself as we line up to board behind Juicy Bottom (who DOES end up in the row behind us - along with her seat-kicking son) and Checkered Keffiyeh Man.  “This is what the ‘real’ Middle East is gonna be like.”

Monday, March 9, 2015

Monday, March 09, 2015 - No comments

Journey to Jordan #1: Anticipation

(Written March 7 on the plane to Istanbul)

Getting ready for this trip, I realized how long it’s been since I went somewhere new.  It used to be that I’d lead a trip out of the country every three months as a rule.  And even when I moved to Turkey, there were all those visa runs to Bulgaria, Greece, and the UK.  But now that I’ve got a residence permit and a stable life in Turkey, I don’t get “out” much.  The last new place I went was...Zurich in 2012?  But even that was just a layover - 24 hours and a whole lot of truffles and macarons.  :)  Before that, it was Albania.  But both of those were European and therefore slightly familiar feeling.  Plus, I was with friends the whole time so I didn’t have to think too much about navigating in a land where I didn’t speak the language. completely different.  It’s the Middle East, for one - pretty unknown territory.  Technically I’ve “been there” - a day trip to Aleppo (back before it was leveled...) and a few days in Cairo.  (Again, hosted by people who, even if they couldn’t speak Arabic, knew their way around.)  This time, my roommate and I will be with friends in Amman for a few days, but after that, we’re on our own.  Being touristy, I’m sure Petra and Aqaba will have plenty of English speakers (“You want ride camel?  Special price for beautiful lady!”)  But even so, it still feels like a wide-open adventure.  

Now that I’m over (for the most part) this nagging cold, I finally have the brain space to be excited.  And I am excited!  Excited for new.  Excited for phrasebook conversations.  Excited for my camera to see things it’s never seen before.  Excited for “hope this tastes good cuz I have no clue what it is” menu selections and figuring out a new set of coins and bills and that feeling of victory when you ask reception for more toilet paper and they show up at your door with...toilet paper!

Packing for this trip was quite the ordeal.  Our hosts weren’t the detailed email type, so we were kinda flying blind, relying on online forums and what a friend who had been there last year could tell us.  “Cover your butt” was the universal consensus.  But does that mean “front and back” or is a long sweater over a regular shirt enough?  Headscarf or no?  Would it make us feel safer or is it like Turkey where a non-Muslim covering is weird?  Then there’s the matter of finding headscarves that match your tunic that match your sweater....  Sure, we live in “modest dress-land”, but whole ensembles that met the criteria took some effort to scrounge up.  Let’s just say the pazar made a good chunk of change on us this week.  The thing is, though, where we live, “modest” is synonymous with “village.”  Modest-cute - which is what I assume the gorgeous downtown Ammani women and most of the friends we’ll spend the first few days with will be wearing - is a whole ‘nother animal.

Oy.  So complicated.

And don’t even get me started on all the last minute bathing suit cover-up conversations.  When we go to Aqaba, we’ll be snorkelling in the Red Sea.  (Clownfish and coral below the surface, and a view stretching from Egypt to Israel to Saudi Arabia above.  Wow.)  It’s supposed to be like 27/80 degrees, but since it’s March, the water will still be cold, so we’ll be getting wetsuits.  But when we’re on the beach and walking to and from the hotel, are t-shirts okay or do we have to wear our jeans and tunics?  Sites like Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor are helpful to an extent, but most of the people on those forums are the “how much can I get away with” type, and not so much the “honour the culture” type, so it’s always hard to tell.  Even though I hate packing clothes that I’ll literally only wear once, I decided that in a t-shirt and long skirt, I’ll be cool enough and more covered than most of the other tourists, so I should be safe. much to think about!

Then there’s the whole matter of edibles.  Whenever we go on a road trip, the joke is that I pack snacks as if we’re leaving the country.  But this time we really are!  My roommate is going to Amman for work, and I’ll be on my own at the apartment for most of the day.  Will the people hosting us be the “put a bag of coffee in the freezer and stock the fridge for you” type, or will I need to fend for myself?  Will there be stores nearby? And can I even leave the house alone to look for food?  And will my zero Arabic be enough to get what I need?  

So...a good three kilos of my luggage is food and snacks.  I’ve got fruit leather, almonds, chocolate, Ramen Noodles, enough Starbucks instant to last me all week, and two cans of tuna which I dearly hope won’t explode in my suitcase or look “suspicious” to the security guys.  I even packed a bunch of single-serving honey packets for coffee or emergency sore-throat treatments.  I don’t want to offend my hosts by busting this stuff out, but I also don’t want to starve.  So, if my over-preparation is all for naught and it's a week full of falafel and good hummus, I guess I’ll still be eating a good portion of my luggage allowance in order to make room for souvenirs and the much-anticipated “American grocery store” run!

You can see why I’ve never been a light packer....

BYOCB:  Bring Your Own Coffee Break

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Sunday, March 08, 2015 - No comments

Running With a New Crowd

Sixteen little white porcelain cups.  That was the debris left after the elaborate pour-over process that injected three of us with a blessedly non-hotel grade caffeine fix and caused our fourth companion to shake his head at “those coffee people.”  Tracking chips laced onto our shoes and race bibs securely pinned onto our shirts, we shook the last traces of sleepiness from our bodies and headed out the door.

As we stretched and warmed up under a palm tree, I surveyed the thousands of other runners who had shown up for the race.  It was as if every pair of spandex in the nation had converged on this one spot.  Various hues of neon moisture-wicking fabric denoted the different clubs.  Some ran sprints up and down the parking lot, others contorted their bodies in all manner of stretching positions, and I was particularly intrigued by the one couple who had perfected a choreographed warm-up routine in which they mirrored each other’s every motion.  Quite a few people had photos of Özgecan, the girl whose recent murder as she attempted to resist being raped by a minibus driver, pinned to the backs of their shirts, and I spotted several “Say no to violence against women” banners being unfurled.   iPhone armbands were adjusted, shoes tested for even lace tightness.  I tried to gauge people’s seriousness based on whether they were arranging energy gels in a waistband (marathon runners) or sipping tea in the shade (probably out for a 10K walk peppered with a whole lot of selfies.)  

I had just wished the guys a good half-marathon and was headed for one last visit to the porta-potties before lining up for the start of the 10K (wouldn’t want the early morning coffee binge to strike at Kilometre 5!) when I heard them:  the long, slow trumpet notes signaling the beginning of the national anthem.  I paused mid-stride and turned to face the grandstand, joining the thousands around me standing at attention, arms at our sides.  And there, in the shade of a statue of an Ottoman with a water jug on his back, I lifted my voice.  “Do not fear!  This red flag that waves in the dawn’s light will never fade...”  And, as happens every single time I sing the İstiklal Marşı, a few patriotic tears found their way down my cheeks.

Fifteen minutes later, the marathon and half-marathon runners now well on their way, I headed towards the starting line.  A pile of friends had come out to cheer - some lined up along the side of the road with encouraging signs in hand, and the others waved from the pedestrian overpass that marked the start of the course.  And then, to the beat of Çakkıdı, my old Avrupa Yakası buddy Gaffur’s signature dance song, the countdown ended and off we went.

I’d only begun my “Couch to 10K” program around Christmas, so I’d known I wasn’t quite ready to run the full 10K and was opting for “run 5, walk 1” intervals.  The surprise appearance of the sun made for a hotter day than I’d anticipated, and this, coupled with the fact that I’d been sick in bed until a few days before, definitely affected my energy.  Still, the fact that I’d actually arrived at this day had me pumped full of excitement, and just putting my feet to the pavement felt like a victory in itself.  

The route wound through downtown, with a good chunk of it running parallel to the sea.  The sight of the turquoise waters and the crisp morning mountains definitely made for a nice distraction.  There was something so exhilarating about running on familiar streets.  It made me feel ownership of my city in a way I’ve never felt before.  Passing shops and businesses I frequent, I watched for faces I might recognize.  My contact lens guy wasn’t open yet and my favourite restaurant is closed on Sunday, but I was thrilled to get a big wave and a cheer from my favourite Starbucks barista as I ran by.  

Leading up to the big day, there had been lot of texts and phone calls back and forth between me and the other guys doing the run. Rehashing our last runs and spurring each other on had made it feel like we were training together, even though we were in different cities and prepping for different races.  With them all running the half-marathon, I was on my own on the course, except for whoever was singing in my headphones at the moment, but I quickly felt such a sense of camaraderie with the other runners around me.  Smiles from those I kept pace with and the exuberant shouts as we passed distance markers made for a sense of “togetherness.”  Wild applause and cries of “Bravo!” erupted from the group as those who had already reached the 5K turnaround passed us on their way back, and this only increased as the first half-marathon bibs started to appear.  Those pushing friends in wheelchairs always aroused a round of “Way to go”s.  Kids waved from apartment windows, policemen rerouting traffic nodded their encouragement, and tourists snapped photos and yelled what I assumed were motivational phrases in a variety of languages.  As I approached the halfway turnaround, one particular man who had just started the return journey himself gave me a high-five as he cried out, “Umut!  Umut!”  (“Hope!  Hope!”) and it was just the boost I needed to tell my weary body to press on.

I would’ve told you downtown was fairly flat, but now I can tell you the location of every seemingly inconsequential incline.  What felt like a reward on the way down was killer on the return trip.  As I passed the last water station at the 8K mark, everything within me wanted to give up and just walk the rest of the way.  The fact that the big hill by the museum was yet to come didn’t exactly give me added motivation.  But my mantra of “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” and the fact that I knew I’d be so disappointed in myself if I caved kept me putting one foot in front of the other.  Fittingly, the song that came on in my earphones just after I conquered the hill and passed the 9K marker was “Your Grace is Enough.”  With the finish line just barely in sight, that was enough to make me skip my last walking interval and push on towards the end.  And with a blown kiss to my friends screaming my name as I closed in on the last few metres, I tasted the sweetness of accomplishing my goal.

I finished with a time of 1 hour, 21 minutes and 49 seconds.  More than anything, I was so proud of myself for sticking to my plan and never giving in to exhaustion, but finishing strong.  All those early mornings dodging sheep poop on the dirt roads around my house had paid off!  But the unexpected pleasure of the whole experience for me was that of spending a few hours in the company of a slice of society I don’t move in very often.  I was surrounded by Turks who live active lives, who set goals and achieve them, who raise money for social causes and carry a culture of encouragement.  They showed me a face of Turkey I hadn’t really seen before.  

There’s another 10K in Istanbul on a weekend in April when I am hoping to be up there.  If I train hard, I think I could swing running the whole distance by then.  And the idea of running on the coastal road in my favourite city is hard to resist.  Might not be long before I am once again standing at attention in my sweats, crying as I sing about my love for the crescent and star at the starting line...