New York Harbor on “The Ventura”

Ventura mastIt was a perfect Sunday afternoon for sailing: an Indian Summer day and just a hint of autumn in the air. 25 of us (and a dog named Bobbie) went out on The Ventura, a single-masted, wooden sailing yacht commissioned in 1919. The cruises are arranged through DBA, a pub in the East Village. I’ve been joining the DBA tours since I moved to New York in 2001, most often with my friends Kathryn and Ziggy. The trips are relaxing, the people are fun, and the views of Manhattan from the busy harbor can’t be beat.

Captain Pat, at the helm of Ventura, renovated the boat himself and has been leading tours in New York Harbor for some twenty years. I’m told Pat is a descendant of southern author Joel Chandler Harris, who wrote the Uncle Remus stories, and he’s quite a storyteller himself.

The journey began with a blow from a conch shell and we set out on the Hudson and into the Harbor for a three hour tour (a three hour tour). The winds were perfect, and most of the tour was taken under sail. Captain Pat shut the engines as soon as the sheets were hoisted.

Schooner and Statue of LibertyWe glided past the Statue of Liberty and then south to Bayonne, New Jersey, where giant cruise ships dock. As we neared Staten Island, Pat turned us around and we headed back toward Manhattan, giving us a stunning view of the world’s greatest city as the wind pushed us back to the Winter Garden docks right next to the World Trade Center site.

Since the tour was arranged by a pub, there were tasty libations aboard, and champagne for a passenger’s birthday toast.

Ventura and downtownQuite a contrast to my last felucca (Egyptian sailing boat) ride on the Nile, with some of my best Cairo pals. We poured rum from a plastic bottle and pretended it was iced tea so we didn’t offend the captain, who performed his prayers from the rudder during the middle of our trip.

Captain Pat told stories and talked like a pirate. And, after a year of drinking mostly third world lagers, the beer was cold and yummy.


San Francisco Treats

Telegraph Hill vistaThe first time I came to San Francisco, I was in the back seat of my parent’s car, on another of my family’s extended summer vacations, most often wrapped around the week of a convention of barbershop singers. I must have been around 13 or so. We drove across California and I distinctly remember driving on I-80 towards the city, passing the hills outside Livermore labs, and looking up to see clouds spilling over the hills outside of Oakland.

Those clouds were the famous San Francisco fog.

San Francisco was shrouded in mist the entire time we were there. It was chilly and we wore raincoats in July, but I’ll always remember seeing a cast of Rodin’s “The Thinker” for the first time, the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge with its red towers poking through the fog, and watching the seals on the rocks through the hyper-real reflection of the camera obscura lens.

House of NankingLater, I would spend some of my favorite professional moments here, with some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with (Peggy and Greg) , creating zany stories for an environmental series we used to produce. We’d stay in North Beach/Chinatown at the Holiday Inn (which is now a Hilton) and eat at least one meal (often more) at the House of Nanking, which was a sliver of a storefront, packed to the gills with diners, crammed into narrow tables, and often a significant line out the door. Transamerica with old building in foregroundThe shrimp cakes, hot and sour soup and sesame chicken were amazing. The service was speedy but impersonal and the waiters would hurry you through the meal… they’d say things in Chinese which I’m sure meant “turnover, turnover!”

I had lunch there the other day. It has doubled in size, taking over the space next to it. But, judging by the stanchions out front, there are still hefty crowds. And the food is still good (but there’s no such thing as a lunch portion, so I ate way too much). SF Bay Guardian “Cheap Eats” columnist I.E. (née Dan) Leone, who I know from Youngstown, Ohio, where he was the editor of my college newspaper, has dubbed the House of Nanking “The Puke of Puke-Puke .” To each his own.Columbus and Coit Tower

My mission this week in San Francisco is two-fold: to take classes in multimedia software, and to visit one of my oldest, dearest friends, Brian.

I’m taking the classes downtown, right across from the iconic Transamerica tower, a very different pyramid from the ones I’ve lived near this past year. After classes, I’ve been taking nostalgic strolls in the surrounding neighborhoods: North Beach (near City Lights bookstore and Vesuvio’s tavern), and up to Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill.

Transamerica tower abstract Transamerica pyramid extreme angle looking up

golden gate shakespeare garden sun dialMy strategy for dealing with culture shock of returning home after a year in Egypt has been to take in as much culture as I can in my first weeks back. My first weekend in New York, I saw Sir Ian McKellen with the Royal Shakespeare Company twice, doing both the bard’s “King Lear” and Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull. ” There’s perhaps no greater antidote to a year spent in a very conservative culture and city than to spend time in two of the most dynamic and non-conservative towns in America. The creative energy is infectious.

My pal Brian is a standup comic (you can learn more about him at his site), and awful clever, so my week in San Francisco has also been a lot of laughs and full of surprises.

Malow at harbor MWS Malow ECU

Malow grumpy CU

Malow MCU smile



Fethiye, Turkey

boat fethiye27 hours after stepping onto a bus near Urfa, I finally arrived in Fethiye, Turkey. I set my pack on the bed and reached down to take off my Teva sandals.

What I saw was shocking… my ankles were swollen as big as hams, bulging around the sandal straps. Suddenly I had sympathy for the old women I’ve seen whose ankles hang like water balloons, pouring over their shoes.

fethiye view from hilltopGuess all those hours in buses did a number on me.  I didn’t realize when I got into the first one just how long it was going to take to get across the country, from the eastern Kurdish region to the west and the Aegean. But I skirted a severe case of deep vein thrombosis and made a note to myself to 1) avoid long bus trips if possible, and 2) stretch and exercise more during breaks if I have to take a long bus trip.

Waterfalls butterfly islandI came to Fethiye (called Telmessos in ancient times) to see some of the Aegean blue I had seen in Greece nine years before. What I really wanted to do was take a four-day sailing trip — what they call a “blue cruise” here — but I wouldn’t have the time on this trip. So I spent the first evening walking along the sea front and enjoying the night life at the various restaurants that skirt the harbor. And I booked a “12 Islands Cruise” for the following day.

The double-decker boat was filled to the brim with tourists (at least 150 of them): many families and lots of kids. It wouldn’t be my usual choice for a tour, but it was fun to watch everyone else having such a good time swimming and horsing around. view from on topI sat at a booth with two young Korean gals, who smoked thin cigarettes and chatted with each other (they turned out to be staying in the same hostel, and I would see them again several times in the next two days). And an Australian family with two pre-teen girls (one a fiery redhead, the other a skinny blond), who each listened to her own iPod. They would mime the songs and do sign language to the tune they were listening to, trying to see if the other sister could guess what song it was.

boat rampSomehow we only saw five of the 12 islands promised in the tour, but the sights on the five we did see were spectacular. The water was clear and warm (except at the spot where the cold spring spilled into the bay), and the vista from the top of one of the islands, where dozens of Byzantine ruins command a stunning view, and a little waterfall in the butterfly garden, made the trip worthwhile.  I even went down the boat’s tubular water slide once.

The Storks of Selçuk

storkWhen I checked into my room at the hotel in Selçuk, Turkey, I could see what looked like a giant nest on top of the remaining pillar of what was once a Byzantine aqueduct.

I went out for the afternoon and saw some of the sights in Selçuk — including the ruins of the Basilica of St. John, a massive cathedral built in the 6th century and included the tomb of John the evangelist, known to the Greeks as Theologian. And I walked the side streets, seeing people going about their work, and feeding a lot of cats.

When I returned to my room to relax a bit and read as the sun set, I saw a stork had come to roost in that big nest. I opened the window and said hello, then lay down for a bit to read. And then I head a clicking noise. selcuk catsLike someone rapping on the door.

…rapping on my chamber door

only this and nothing more.

As a boy, I had a plastic Woody Woodpecker knocker — an offer from the back of a Rice Krispies box — on my bedroom door whose head would peck in rapid succession (as a woodpecker would) to announce whomever sought audience with the 8 year-old Chairman of the Board of the world’s messiest bedroom.

It sounded kind of like that.

Selcuk pillars1I got up and looked out the window to see two storks in the other nest, doing an elaborate dance and clicking their beaks. As I looked out across the horizon, at the other pillars and rooftops, about a dozen storks were doing a similar sunset ritual.

I enjoyed it, until they repeated it again at dawn.

6 a.m.

I didn’t ask for a wakeup call. Guess I didn’t need to.

Storks again

Lacrimosa dies illa

Everyone has a story about that morning.

Mine began at the YMCA.

Oblivious to what would happen a mere mile away, I wore headphones and trudged and sweated to the beat of music on some kind of exercise machine while demons with first class one way tickets slit throats and prepared to do the unthinkable.

When I got to the locker room, the usual bunch of old men in towels seemed more agitated than usual. Huddled around a TV, they made the mistake of trying to make sense of what they just saw.

“Couldna been a jet! Had to be some kind of Cessna or something, run off course.”

“That’s a lotta damage for a Cessna,” said another.

As I joined the ring of men in towels, standing, watching local news coverage. A second plane. Live television. That clear, crisp, summery day with visibility for miles. Picture perfect evil.

I better get home.

None of us among the betoweled could really fathom what was going on, or predict the unfolding terror. I ran to the showers, got dressed and brushed my teeth as a young man wept and wailed at the adjoining sink.

“Melissa,” I said out loud. I really need to get home.

I rushed to our temporary home on 17th street in Chelsea. My friend Elsa was on an extended bike trip with her boyfriend and we were apartment sitting in her place, our fourth month as New Yorkers, putting down fragile roots in new soil after 13 years in Atlanta and one year around the world.

The television wasn’t working well, so we found ourselves at the neighbor’s downstairs. This time, in a fully clothed circle of people, huddled around a TV like a communal flame, listening to the free association that passed for news that morning. No reporter certain of what they were saying, but knowing for sure it was the biggest story of their lives.

Bodies fell like fiery rain. Our minds troubled most by putting ourselves in the places of the men and women trapped in the top floors.

I felt the tug to try to cover the event. Take my camera downtown and see what I could see. But I knew I needed to stay there.

And then it fell. That first tower. We watched it fall on television, even though it was a mile away.

Then silence.

Continue reading “Lacrimosa dies illa”

Ephesus, Turkey

Library FacadeAs I continue my backlog of images and tales of my travels this past summer, here are some images of Ephesus (Efes), often called one of the best preserved ancient cities in the Mediterranean. It’s just down the road from the site of the Temple of Artemis, which was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, but barely a column of that great edifice survives today.

Ephesus, on the other hand, is spectacular in both size and shape, with the glorious facade of the Library of Celsus, and the reconstructed terraced homes of nobles. There, painted walls and mosaics are being unearthed and reassembled by archaeologists.

ephesus library detail

efes columns ephesus columns

ephesus 3 ephesus 2



Upscale Cappadocia

phallic goremeThis week’s Sunday travel section in the New York Times features a piece on upscale tourism in  Cappadocia (“A Moonscape Carved by Nature and Man,” September 9, 2007) the region of Turkey where I hiked and traveled last month. The writer, Gisella Williams, describes the Pigeon Valley near the town of Uchisar as “an outrageously phallic landscape straight out of a Salvador Dalí painting.”

Yes, yes, it is.

She slept in designer cave rooms I couldn’t afford. But I also give a thumbs up to the restaurant Alaturca in Goreme. It was my best meal in the region.

Be sure to click on the slide show link on the left of the text in the article. Yoray Liberman’s photos are thrilling.

Are You My Home?

I arrived at JFK on a day New York taxi drivers were out on strike. “This is going to cost me,” I muttered to myself as I queued up with others heading Big Apple-ward. I wondered what the taxi driver’s little book would say the fare is to get me to Jersey City, where I’m temporarily staying, thanks to the kindness and generosity of my friend Marie. The final tally — about $100 — basically the money the fellowship saved on airfare by sending me to JFK instead of Newark.

wet willieAs I left Cairo at around 1 am on Tuesday night — after saying goodbye to J&K (that’s them in the photo, with Jack giving me a final wet willie before I left) who had been so kind to put me up (and put up with me) for a couple of weeks — I made note of each landmark I passed, realizing that all the places I had driven by in various trips in rattly Cairo cabs, I would not see again for some time. I soaked in my last view of the Nile. Looked out at grand mosques and churches that seem to line the elevated highway on the way to the airport. And heard for the last time a taxi driver tell me where Mubarak lives, off the main airport road in Heliopolis.

It was the tail end of rush hour when the taxi driver pulled away from JFK and headed across Queens toward Manhattan. With conservative talk radio on the AM dial blaring on the stereo (a little like hearing imams shouting and chanting on radios in Cairo cabs), my traffic-averse driver swept onto every highway on-ramp whenever he saw traffic ahead. This made for a circuitous tour of New York City, taking in all the geography of a traffic report on 1010WINS morning radio. He swung north to cruise by LaGuardia airport, then onto the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (the BQE) toward my old neighborhood in Brooklyn. Seeing traffic ahead on the BQE, he darted right and took the Queens Midtown tunnel into Manhattan. As he crossed the island (a little bigger than Zamalek in Cairo), I made calls on the cell phone that had been dormant for a year, ticking off one by one the list of friends in the contacts of the phone’s memory. The cab turned left on the West Side highway, and I got my first glimpse of the Hudson in more than a year; the sun setting, and people enjoying the waterfront at all the renewed parks and attractions on its banks. This is a very different river from the Nile, though not as much as I thought a year ago.

In my two days of adjusting so far to life here, I’m doing pretty well, I think, with a little help from my friends. I’ve already had two nights of welcome back dinners and drinks with good pals. I’m getting used to the money being all the same color (more or less) and size.

When I cleaned out the pockets of the pants I wore on the flight home, I laughed to myself as I pulled an Egyptian 5 pound note from the left pocket. Five Egyptian pounds was the cost of a taxi ride from my pad to the AUC office (about 88 cents). But change — fakka in Egyptian Arabic — is not easy to come by, and taxi drivers are notorious for not having any as a strategy for a hefty roundup of the fare (mafish fakka, they say, “I have no change.” Then mish mushkela, “no problem” making gestures that the extra is worth more to him than it is to me). So I would almost jump with glee whenever I got five pound notes as change, and I’d stuff them in my left pocket, separate from the other denominations in my right pocket, so I would always have one handy for the commute.

It’s a habit I won’t need to continue here in New York (a fistful of Lincolns doesn’t hold the same cachet), but it does feel strange to have coins in my pocket instead of a wad of piasters, the flimsy and well-worn bills that serve as pennies and nickels in Egypt.

Staying in Marie‘s, I was immediately comfortable. A quick look around showed it was clearly the home of a comic book editor and traveler. But it was also immediately clear why we are good friends. The knick knack shelf has lots of familiar souvenirs from places I’ve also traveled, and others I hope to visit (particularly Antarctica). A quick scan of the bookshelves showed countless Boolean connections: guidebooks for nearly every region of the globe, and lots of authors in common (Shakespeare, Alaa Al-Aswany, Joseph Campbell, Geoff Ryman, and my friend Dan Piraro).

And among them is Marie’s most recent book Stalking the Wild Dik Dik, which I have been looking forward to reading.

In between chapters, I’ll work on my backlog of stories from my final days overseas. And I’ll share some photos.

If you read Marie’s blog today, you’ll know that I’ve spent the entire day tied to the apartment, waiting for the Verizon folks to come and get the DSL working again. It gave me time to write this post. But it’s after 4, and I have yet to hear from anyone.

I began this blog more than a year ago as a means to keep friends and family back home up to date on my life and adventures in the Middle East.

Now that I’m back, you probably won’t care so much what I’m up to, with familiar ho-hum activities of American life. But I’ll likely continue the blog to keep the friends and colleagues I’ve gotten to know this past year in touch with my life and exploits on this side of the Atlantic.

Journey to the Giant Heads

Zeus1The cover of the previous edition of the Lonely Planet guidebook for Turkey features a photograph of a stone head, its face filled with cracks as though it were made from dried mud, sitting among boulders and scree, soaking in the sunset.

Among the icons of Turkey – the flag, the fez, the whirling dervish, the Blue Mosque, the ubiquitous face of Atatürk, the famous rugs – the strange and glorious heads of Mt. Nemrut … big … weird… easily find their place.

So I was faced with a dilemma: do I continue to enjoy the hiking in the fabulous valleys of stone pillars in Cappadocia (there are so many trails, I could spend weeks here), or do I go see the big weird heads? As I mentioned in a previous dispatch, it was like the flip of a coin: heads or trails.

My biggest reservation was time, since you have to travel so far, into the Southeastern Anatolia region of the country, the last chapter in the more than 600 pages of guidebook. Antiochus IWhen I discovered a tour group was giving a good price on a tour that would leave in time for me to enjoy the geo-cephalic site and still have a few days to get back west to the Aegean, I put down my Euros (wincing at the exchange rate… damn you weak dollar!), and packed my bags.

There are two things about Mt. Nemrut National Park that are misnomers. First, the Mt. Nemrut that you stand on when you walk to the summit is not the only Mt. Nemrut in Turkey. The other mountain is further east, towering more than nine-thousand feet above Lake Van. And, second, the giant stone figures on the mountaintop were not created by Nemrut, also known as Nimrod (he of Genesis, way before Phil Collins). They were commissioned by King Antiochus I Epiphanes who had an epiphany (ahem), and placed himself in the middle of figures of the gods: sun god Apollo; Fortuna; Zeus; Antiochus, and then Heracles. This is where he believed he would be when he died – among the gods.

Head at feetThe gods his people worshiped were an unusual amalgam of Greek and Persian gods. The stone heads were once on top of appropriately proportioned stone bodies. The five statues, flanked by lions and ravens on each end, stood atop the mountain in two sets, one facing east, the other west, saluting the sun at dawn and dusk.

As the old saying goes, “heads will roll.” Especially after sitting atop stone bodies over thousands of years, and suffering erosion and earthquakes.

So the heads, free from their stone necks, tumbled downhill. Now they sit in a row on the mountain’s eastern side, placed below the figures of their bodies, greeting the sunrise each morning with the same expression they’ve held for more than 2,000 years.

Continue reading “Journey to the Giant Heads”