Sunday, January 3, 2010

Travels to Asia

For those of you who have the money and can make the time, I can’t recommend traveling abroad highly enough. It’s an invaluable opportunity to meet interesting people, visit exotic places, and experience different cultures.

In my 2009 trip to Turkey, for instance, I met a number of warm-hearted Istanbulians who went out of their way to make me and my wife feel welcome. I particularly enjoyed the services of a wiry petite man with a little mustache named Ahmet, one of the masseurs at the Çemberlitaş Hamam, a famous Turkish bathhouse dating back to the 16th century. The soap scrub I received at his nimble hands was so thorough and performed with such care that I honestly thought about giving up everything and marrying him. I would stay in his flat overlooking the Sea of Marmara and learn how to cook Adana kebab while he went off to the hamam to bring home the bacon. We could meet for lunch at the Egyptian Bazaar, say, and on weekends take a boat ride to Üsküdar, giggling like love-struck teenagers as we throw breadcrumbs at the seagulls near Leander’s Tower. We would go shopping together on İstiklal Avenue in Beyoğlu district, looking so cool in our black leather jackets as we flip through magazines at the bookstore with a feigned bourgeois insouciance. But the highlight for me would be to ensconce ourselves in a quaint nargile café and discuss European fashion between puffs. No telling what could happen after Ahmet and I polished off a bottle of rakı! Shoulda, woulda, coulda. Once the massage was over, however, I decided just to give the little guy a good tip.

In addition to interesting people like Ahmet, world travel brings you in touch with fascinating cultures more broadly. My military deployment in Afghanistan gives ample testimony here. I could mention the local Afghans who sold their wares at the bazaar every Friday. U.S. and NATO soldiers dutifully did their part in purchasing gems, pashmina scarves, and lapis lazuli stoneware from smiling, Dari-speaking merchants, the proceeds of which would go back into the Taliban’s coffers to help fund each year’s spring offensive. Rinse, lather, repeat. I might also bring up the fifteen or so Afghan laborers who stayed overnight throughout the week in my compound. With pistol strapped to my thigh, I was responsible for checking up on them in the middle of the night. I tried to avoid Thursday, because, as “Little John,” a Hispanic ex-Marine then working as a contractor informed me, Thursday was Sodomy Night. Fortunately, I could watch from afar as Little John, or whoever was appointed the task for the night, went inside the tent for a head count, greeted by a whiff of third-world B.O. upon opening of the flaps, and always at risk for witnessing a game of naked leap frog in progress.

I could also discuss the unarmed Gurkha guards who provided security for the compound and whose politeness, reliability and integrity were beyond reproach. We’d often exchange knowing glances at one another, as if to say something like, These Afghans are frickin’ freaks! Give me an Amen on that, brotha! I might make reference to the Kyrgyz hairdressers who gave exquisite massages for only 20 bucks or the wonderful Indian staff at the Green Beans coffee shop. Yeah, I could discuss the aforementioned ethnic groups, but I’ll focus on a very curious tribe I came across, the largest and most ubiquitous clan on the base; I’m referring to a strange breed of mammals known as military contractors. They seem to succumb to every vice known to man: adultery, fornication, graft, greed, sloth, drunkenness et alia. In fact you’ll find a good description of the contractor in Galatians 6 where Paul describes those who will not inherit the kingdom of God.

While interesting people and strange cultures appeal to those with wanderlust, the quest for exotic and historic places is perhaps what put most travelers on the road. My daughter and I took a trip to Japan earlier this summer. By happenstance we got to see a little of the Imperial Palace and Nijō Castle in Kyoto, but we didn’t tarry long, for we were really just taking a break from our search for another KFC. We had already dined at one in Nagoya and were amazed that the crispy chicken meal tastes exactly like back home! We missed our bus to Mount Fuji the next day, but we more than made up for this disappointment by embarking on a nobler trek: we had resolved to visit every Starbucks in Tokyo and make comparisons with those back in the States. Whenever I flip through our scrapbook and come across the photo of Jessika standing in front of the Kinkakuji, or Golden Pavilion, I can’t help but think how flustered we were in not getting a photo next to Mickey during our day-long adventure at Tokyo Disneyland. Admittedly, we saw little of the countryside, and our exposure to city life and main attractions was minimal, what with constantly bouncing from McDonald’s to Starbuck’s, Starbuck’s to McDonald’s. Thank goodness they didn’t have a Wal-Mart out there! Between the McNuggets and mocha Frappuccinos, we probably both gained about ten pounds. We hardly got outdoors too; although it was August, we returned to the states as white as Geisha girls!

These travels to Asia, in sum, have enriched my life, giving me precious memories of gracious people and magical places that I’ll never forget. If you get a chance, see the world. It will broaden your horizons.