Keep Walking Puerto Rico

We’ve just finished a few weeks in a new world, at least for us. A world of no final s’s—the morning greeting in Puerto Rico is not “Buenos dias” but “Bueno dia.”

Puerto Rico, Maria, Hurricane
Johnnie Walker says it all: Keep Walking Puerto Rico, an encouraging message after Hurricane Maria in September, 2017.

A ROCKY START

After an easy few flights, Jerry and I landed in San Juan at 10 PM, enveloped by muggy heat and eager to pick up our air-conditioned car. My son Ross and his girlfriend Shanna offered to meet us at the airport, but since they were a half hour away, we decided to just use my phone’s google maps to find them. Big mistake. There are numerous streets called Calle Coral, and we navigated to the wrong one, miles from Shanna’s apartment. My phone died as Ross tried to orient us, so there we sat, lost in a strange city at midnight. I finally discovered a usb port in the car and had Jerry pull over so I could jump out to get the charging cable from the trunk. Whew! Communication restored.

We finally met Ross and Shanna, only to discover that my wallet was gone. Probably dropped on the side of the road when I hopped out for the charger. At 1:00 AM we all backtracked to cruise the side of the highway for my lost wallet. Nothing. Shanna prompted, “You need to think like a Puerto Rican. We will find it. Let’s try a second pass.” Ross and I scoured the roadside with our cell phone flashlights, and at long last—there it lay! HOORAY!!! Disaster averted.

Puerto RicoRoss and Shanna, the reasons for our visit.

THANKSGIVING DINNER

Thanksgiving felt odd in San Juan’s 85-degree, 95% humidity, but I was with my son and his Puerto Rican loved ones. The company was delightful and the food fabulous. Shanna stuffed a turkey with tantalizing yucca root mashed with garlic and herbs. YUM! The turkey fell apart in the pan, so we served ourselves from there. Sweet potatoes, a cold bean and vegetable salad, and the most delicious beans and rice I’ve ever tasted filled out our Thanksgiving repast. These people know how to do garlic. In fact, you can buy peeled garlic cloves in the store. Heaven!

 

Thanksgiving, Puerto Rico, San Juan
Shanna works on her yucca stuffing

 

Thanksgiving, Puerto Rico, San Juan
Jerry encourages us to enjoy the Thanksgiving repast.
Puerto Rico, garlic
Peeled garlic cloves in the produce section of the store for a mere few dollars.

And of course, there was football.

I braved the heat with multiple trips to the pool, thanks to Shanna’s son Bayoan, a 10-year old charmer who worships water. Me, too. That evening we piled into Shanna’s new car for a beach sunset, where Bayoan romped in the waves, launching himself into each swell as it crashed on the beach.

Puerto Rico, waves, San Juan
Bayoan romps in the San Juan waves at sunset.

OUR AGUADILLA BEACH APARTMENT

The next morning Ross led us to our home for the next few weeks, a beach apartment he’d rented a few years earlier in Aguadilla Pueblo. Our dreams of air conditioning and wi-fi were dashed. We did, though, have huge open windows overlooking the the Caribbean. The waves served as our lullaby, both for daytime naps and nighttime snoozes.

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla,
Our kitchen in Aguadilla

 

 

 

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo
Our apartment living room (note Jerry and Mira on the couch)

 

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla, beach house
Our front porch just above the beach (built by Ross when he lived there).

Ross mopped the floors and headed off to get us more fans, dishes, linens and a coffee pot while we came to terms with our humble abode. It had electricity, a nice couch and chairs, running water (cold only), a functioning microwave, and a few electrical outlets. We were welcomed by a resident cat, Mira (Spanish for “Look!”), because she meows incessantly. “Look at me! Look at me!” She marched in and made herself right at home, and she got lots of love from Jerry. Even though I’m allergic to cats, I found her amusing.

 

Mira relaxes on our counter.

 

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo
Sunset in Aguadilla–from the street above our apartment.

We grew accustomed to our humble dwelling (a cold shower is easier if you wet your head first), and enjoyed exploring the area. One evening we happened on a community celebration with live bands and free food at a local restaurant. Though we’d already eaten, we shared a plate of tantalizingly spiced pork with beans and rice as we sipped on yet another beer and enjoyed the scene.

HURRICANE MARIA

Everyone in PR talks about Hurricane Maria. It’s deeply etched into everyone’s psyche and there’s evidence everywhere of devastated buildings. One woman we met at Jobos (pronounced Hobo), Ross’s favorite surfing beach, said that she hadn’t liked the U.S. until after the hurricane. A massage therapist, Christina said she was literally starving for weeks until U.S. organizations brought in food and water. She didn’t have much to say for Trump (everyone in PR seemed to despise him), but she was thankful for the generosity of Americans who donated to help PR. Sadly, too many corrupt officials stockpiled donations of food, water, and building supplies in warehouses to sell later at a profit. At a time when every Puerto Rican was scrambling to survive and to help each other, that behavior was unconscionable. Shanna said that in order to get water, her friend was required to sign off on getting 16 bottles when she was only given seven. If she didn’t sign, she got nothing. We seldom talked with anyone who didn’t need to share their Maria experiences. Heartbreaking.

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo, Maria
An Aguadilla school, deserted.

Many private homes and businesses have been or are being repaired, while government buildings still sit in disrepair, some deserted. Just blocks from our apartment was an abandoned beachfront school and an abandoned government building. A park and sports arena at the south end of the town, once beautiful, look like a dumping ground of broken equipment, overgrown weeds, and piles of trash and leaves. 

On the other hand, the entire country is brightened with street art—murals everywhere!

 

mural, Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria
The side of a building at Buyé Beach—LOTS of octopus murals in PR

 

Puerto Rico, mural, street art
Loved this clever mural on a Boqueron kayak rental business that was never open. Sigh…

 

mural, Puerto Rico, Aguadilla, Hurricane Maria
Another mural in Boqueron

We spent our week visiting beach after beach, snorkeling, swimming, and exploring—and learning about currents. Beware the rip tide.

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo
Jerry reveling at a beach in Cabo Rojo.

 

I indulged in a brew after a long swim at Buyé Beach.

MAGICAL VIEQUES

The second weekend we ferried over to Vieques (fare a mere $1 for seniors), a small island east of Puerto Rico, where we’d rented a lovely airbnb. Our host picked us up at the ferry pier in a dented-up old jeep. Michael was a delightful guide, an Irish/American/Puerto Rican who’s lived on Vieques for fifteen years. Our upstairs apartment, Casa Mama, was gorgeous—tastefully decorated and stocked with fresh baked bread, a pitcher of cold mango and papaya juice, eggs, fresh milk, coffee, and jam. Definitely a step up.

Ross and Shanna joined us Saturday morning, and after a hearty breakfast we explored the island, discovering a 375-year-old ceiba tree. We also visited a sacred  Taino aboriginal site and marveled at the scores of horses that roam the island. (2000, according to the internet.) Michael had warned us to beware of horses on the roads at night.

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo, CeibaAnn Marie and Jerry pose under the 375+ Ceiba Tree.

Puerto Rico, Vieques, Horses, horses everywhere on Vieques

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla Pueblo, Taino
Shanna investigates a carved stone at the Taino sacred site. The Taino aboriginals were virtually wiped out by explorers.

 

Puerto Rico, Taino, Vieques
A Taino carving of one of their gods.

The highlight of our weekend was a bioluminescent tour on Mosquito Bay. Twenty of us boarded a rickety school bus in downtown Esperanza (a three-block beach metropolis on the south side of the island) and bounced our way through the jungle to Mosquito Bay, the world’s finest bioluminescent site. It was totally dark as we hopped on kayaks and proceeded to paddle out into the bay, mesmerized by the glowing water when we dipped our paddles. Soon we spotted luminescent figures darting through the water—fish. Mosquito Bay is replete with dinoflagellates, tiny plankton that protect themselves from predators by enlarging themselves and emitting a blue-green light whenever they’re disturbed. We giggled and screeched at each new discovery. When we sat still without paddling, the water was filled with tiny star-like dots. Then when fish swam by, their disturbance lit the water around them. Ross loved the glow of huge tarpon swimming low in the bay, but my favorite was the needlefish that skimmed the water, creating a stroke of lightning across its surface. My camera didn’t capture the action, but I found  this little video, just in case you’re curious. Mosquito Bay has the highest level of dinoflagellates in the world, according to our guide

We’re on our way home now, bracing ourselves for snow shoveling, skiing and snowshoeing. In the words of Johnnie Walker, “KEEP WALKING, PUERTO RICO.”

A note: There are NO plastic bags in Puerto Rico (as of December 30, 2016)

Puerto Rico, Aguadilla, Hurricane Maria
Ross and his old mom—such joy to have a few weeks in his world.

Norway, Week One

I’ve been in Norway a week now, though it seems longer—so much activity, so much beauty, so much information!

My first airplane view of northern Norway. WOW!

I came for a family reunion of the descendants of Johannes Olsen, my great-great-great grandfather. Not just me, but my brother Steve and sister Laura (and their spouses) as well as my niece Cortney came as well. Sadly, my husband Jerry had to cancel at the last minute because of a serious back problem. It broke both our hearts, as the second week was a planned kayak trip around one of the Lofoten islands. Sigh…

After a lonesome night at a Bodø B&B, I hit the road for Bø i Vesterålen, a 6 1-2 hour drive including a ferry ride. I got up at 5 AM to be sure I caught the ferry, then sat in the ferry line playing sudoku on my phone as I waited. Another sigh…

The views along the way were spectacular.

I found my way to the village of Bø (in the kommune of Bø), and turned in to Bøhallen, the community center. You can probably figure out the meaning. In spite of a light rain, the parking lot was packed with LOTS of people who look like me (and my uncles and aunts) grilling hot dogs and speaking Norwegian. I found my way to the registration table and picked up our t-shirts and a schedule. 

Our colorful reunion t-shirts, in Norwegian, of course.

Marit, one of the organizers, made a big fuss over me, hugging me like an old friend. She hunted around for her brother Øyvind, who had instigated and planned the whole event, and he welcomed me with a brilliant smile and another hug. It wasn’t long before Laura and Rob found me. Whew! English.

After milling the crowd a bit, they drove me to see their sweet little room in a boathouse B & B down the road. Then we found our way to the afternoon event, a fishing boat ride out to the island of Gaukværøya, which used to be a fishing village. We asked our captain (a fisherman named Tom, also a relative) to wait for our niece Cortney, who was minutes away. Since it was a small group, he agreed. Lucky Cortney. Lucky us.

Captain Tom rowed everyone from his fishing boat to the island. Cortney, my second cousins AnnBjorg and Irene and Ingor, my second-cousin once removed.

Arne, a local historian, shared the history of Gaukværøya, settlement that began in the middle ages and lasted until the early fifties, when hundreds of residents had to dismantle their homes and move them to the mainland (also an island). Everything in Vesterålen is an island. Go figure. The entire area is an archipelago, I guess. The government wasn’t willing to run electricity or offer government services to such remote residents, so they offered them a payment in exchange for giving up their rights to return to their little island, which is now littered with foundations, both ancient and modern (stone and concrete).

Tom’s father, also named Arne, recounts his memories of life on the island.

Anyway, it was fascinating to learn about life on Gaukværøya. In addition to Arne’s descriptions, Tom’s father Arne shared stories about growing up there. Luckily, Ingor sat beside me and translated; most everything was in Norwegian. The island is rugged— all rocks and bumpy ground, so apparently the children had a heyday while their parents worked. They attended school on the island when it was convenient, because they often had to help with fishing and household responsibilities.

My brother’s family and I were hosted by my fourth cousin, Sonja Klaussen, and once we finally got home after dinner, we sat up until the wee hours talking. It was light all night, and it’s energizing. The whole time I was with family I was up until 2 AM. (At home I start yawning around 9:00.)

My fourth cousin Sonja Klaussen hosted us in her lovely home.

Saturday morning we woke to see four moose grazing in Sonja’s back yard. They’re smaller than our Minnesota moose, but delightful to watch nonetheless.

A Norwegian moose checks us out as we marvel at Sonja’s backyard view. Really!

The day was filled with reunion events—an orientation, a coffee hour, a presentation on the lineage from our great-great-great grandfather, then photos outdoors.

The twelve children of my great-great-great grandfather, Johannes Olsen. Two wives.

They organized a group photo for the descendants of each of Johann’s twelve children, then we had a mass photo of all 300 relatives. Shocking. It was fun, though, to see who had descended from my great-great grandmother Johanna Sophie (1818-1889).

Organizing the masses into photos of each line of the family was no easy task.

Too much information, I know.

The day ended with a catered buffet banquet and a dance at the community center. Pretty much the kind of music my grandparents liked dancing to, but we did our best. I needed the exercise.

My brother Steve, wife Ann and daughter Cortney toast at the Johannes Olsen banquet.
Me, brother-in-law Rob, and sister Laura enjoying the festivities. Do we look full yet?

On Sunday my sister Laura, Rob and I skipped out to go on a whale watching tour in Andenes, at the north end of Vesterålen. The drive was spectacular, and the event started with a museum tour that astonished and enlightened us. We learned how the whales use sonar, and that only male whales come up north. The ladies stay behind in the mid-Atlantic raising their young and waiting for the next round of mating.

Our guide led us through a fascinating whale museum. This, my friends, is a whale’s tail.

Oh, I nearly lost my finger on the boat, too. After we got on we were standing along the side of the boat, and I had my hand over the edge. Little did I know there were huge plastic bumpers that meet the edge of the boat at low tide. ARAUGHHH!!! I screamed when I felt my fingers squeezed, then yelled for everyone to PUSH! People came to my rescue, and I was able to extricate a very smushed finger. By the end of the ride it had recovered. 

The captain of the ship wears headphones to pick up the clicks of the whale’s sonar system, then he follows them until the whale surfaces for air. Amazing.

The captain sat up top with headphones on, following the whale’s clicks as he hunted below.

We got to see a whale surface twice. He’s a local resident sperm whale, and they call him Glenn. Imagine a boat with 60 people who’ve waited hours to see a whale, everyone with their cameras at the ready.  “People at the railing bend down so everyone can see!” (in Norwegian, German and English) This old lady ended up sitting on the deck with my camera, snapping, snapping, snapping photos of Glenn as he spouted over and over and finally dove. So who got the best photos? My sister Laura, who pulled out her iPhone at the last minute and got spectacular shots of the flukes as Glenn headed down. Go figure!

This is my photo of Glenn diving. I was trying to get the mountains in, too.

We rented a stunning 3-bedroom airbnb on a peninsula between mini-fjords, just down the road from Bøhallen.

Steve and Ann pose by the kayaks in front of our spectacular rental home. Wish we could have stayed longer…

It was a joy to have time with my siblings to process the information about our ancestors. Our second cousin AnnBjorg invited us to her house for a reindeer feast on Monday, and it ended up being an eight-hour affair, including a delectable meal, a visit to my great-grandparents’ graves, and a long drive to Nyksund, a restored fishing village about an hour from AnnBjorg’s house. 

Chef Sten and AnnBjorg distribute beverages for our dinner as Ingor looks on. We were treated to thin-sliced reindeer in a sauce like beef stroganoff. YUM!
We visited my great-grandparents’ graves, Nickolai and Stina Willumson, whom we share with AnnBjorg and her sisters.
This is our first view of Nyksund, which sounded like “Nixon” to me.
My brother Steve poses as we leave Nyksund with our second cousins, Irene and AnnBjorg. Lovely hosts!
Just to let you know, I was there, too. We all posed at the end of the village, tiny as it was.

We also learned that AnnBjorg’s house stands beside the one where my grandfather grew up. Who knew?

My grandfather’s childhood home stood next door to AnnBjorg and Sten’s house.

The next day Laura and Rob left, and Steve, Ann and I walked to the Bø historical and outdoor museum. Fascinating. It included a famous statue of a man holding a crystal that catches the light from the midnight sun and the northern lights.

 

The famous Bø statue, carefully guarded by a possessive curlew who’s left its signature on the man’s head and shoulders.

After that we rented kayaks to paddle along the coast by our house. 

After kayaking the shore near our house, Steve and I landed on a soggy beach at low tide.

That night we were treated to a brilliant sunset, and here in the land of the midnight sun, it lasted about three hours. What a show it was! Once again, I got to bed around 2 AM. Oh, well.

Our spectacular three-hour sunset. Only in Nordland.

On Wednesday morning we parted ways after a walk to the end of the road. Steve and Ann were heading to Trømsø, and I was heading for Reine on Lofoten. My drive was supposed to take about 4 1-2 hours, but I’d decided that I would stop at some of the waysides to take photos. I did it a lot. So much that my drive took seven hours, especially since it was the first totally sunny day since I’d arrived.

Some sweet town on my way to Reine.
As I drove, the mountains got taller and craggier.

I stayed in the Lofoten Bed and Breakfast, which wasn’t as nice as I’d expected—and it cost nearly as much as our beautiful rental in Bø. It was just a room with a few chairs and little hot pot. Luckily, there was a refrigerator outside my door to store all the food I’d purchased for my week alone.

It was a long, lonesome day. After I checked in I walked through the town of Reine, which is lovely but a bit too congested and commercialized for my tastes. They’ve stuck with the red boathouse theme, so it’s cute, but a little too busy.

I’m quite sure this is a view from the Reine harbor. Hard to tell–everything here is spectacular.
Another view of Reine–in the next morning’s sun.

I was thankful that the rest of my stay would be in Å, the town at the far end of Lofoten. More about that later.

Turkish Election—A Pyrrhic Victory?

“Yes’ vote gives unprecedented powers to the office of the President in Turkey.”

Here is yet another post from my (understandably) anonymous friends in Turkey. I appreciate their understanding of this disturbing result. Measured optimism? See for yourself.

A Pyrrhic Victory

Pyrrhic victory: a victory that is not worth winning because the winner has lost so much in winning it. (Cambridge Dictionary)

The Turkish referendum of 2017 is over and, according to semi-official figures, the ‘Yes’ vote to giving unprecedented powers to the office of the President squeaked out a narrow victory of 51.4% to 48.6%. Lest our readers, especially those of you viewing these events from afar, think that Turkey has now entered definitively onto the road to dictatorship, we will argue that the referendum results should not be read in this fashion. In our opinion, the razor-thin margin of victory should be seen as a Pyrrhic victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling AK Party. What do we mean by this?

Turkey, Istanbul, annmariemershon.com, You Must Only to love them, https://www.amazon.com/You-must-only-love-them-ebook/dp/B01DFUGIEI
48,000,000 votes

First, let us remind our readers of the conditions under which this referendum was held: the shameless and scandalous use of state resources and services for the ‘Yes’ campaign; the total domination of the media, print and broadcast, by the government with no equal time for ‘No’ campaigners; the jailing of leaders of the opposition Kurdish-based HDP party which made it impossible for them to mobilize support for ‘No’; the slandering of ‘No’ supporters as traitors and terrorists; thug attacks on ‘No’ events and cancellation of their venues for spurious reasons; and the conducting of the referendum while Turkey is under a State of Emergency where intimidation and fear has put a damper on freedom of speech, the press and assembly. These were the obstacles facing ‘No’ supporters. RTE, the AK Party leadership and the allied nationalist MHP leadership threw everything they had at ‘No’ supporters and still only managed to win by a mere 1%, a true Pyrrhic victory.

Turkey, Istanbul, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
Hail to the Chief?

The ‘Yes’ camp was hoping for a minimum of 55% in their column. Not only did they not reach that goal, they managed to lose Turkey’s three largest cities, Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir, as well as such major urban centers as Adana, Antalya, Mersin and Diyarbakır. (RTE even saw his Istanbul home district of Üsküdar go ‘No’ and then the entire city, where he had been a popular mayor.) In other words, most of Turkey’s financial, industrial, political, educational and cultural centers opted for ‘No’ in the referendum. These results can scarcely be read as a resounding victory for the President and the ‘Yes’ camp. The weak and divided ‘No’ supporters faced off against the ‘Yes’ Goliath and fared well. The HDP showed via the strong ‘No’ vote in the largely Kurdish southeast and in the major cities that, in spite of government pressure and dirty tricks and even though it was not able to wage an effective ‘No’ campaign, it retained the support of its voter base. No small achievement when the government has been clearly out to demonize and destroy it.

Turkey, Istanbul, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
Spring-y Optimism?

The one big loser in this referendum is the nationalist MHP, whose leadership entered into an alliance with RTE and the AK Party for the ‘Yes’ vote. They simply did not deliver. It is estimated that some 80% of MHP supporters voted ‘No’, following the lead of a group of dissidents who had been expelled for opposing the ‘Yes’ alliance. The MHP’s fate is now uncertain as it may soon face the emergence of a new nationalist party.

In the aftermath of the vote we can now expect a number of legal challenges to the results, based on how the referendum was conducted, major irregularities in the vote tabulation process and allegations of outright voter fraud. In the past, senior dogs have always been comfortable with what we saw as the overall fairness of Turkish elections and we’ve always had confidence in their results. Unfortunately, we don’t think that this is any longer the case. The widespread instances of manipulation, pressure and outright vote-stealing being reported must now be added to the litany of reasons why the results must be considered illegitimate. Since the ruling party controls the appeals process, it is, however, hard to be optimistic that the results will be overturned.

Turkey, Istanbul, election, Erdogan, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
Contemplating what lies ahead for Turkey

Be that as it may, in our opinion, the referendum’s results were a Pyrrhic victory for Erdoğan, highlighting not his unbeatable power, but rather his weakening grip on Turkish politics. If he cannot deliver – i.e., reinvigorate Turkey’s ailing economy, show something positive for his intervention in Syria, put a stop to the attacks which have crippled tourism and foreign investment, and offer more than a military solution to the ‘Kurdish question’ – we suspect we will see more erosion of his popularity in the period ahead, as the new executive super-presidential system takes shape and he prepares for his run for president in 2019.

In the meantime, we are hopeful that the post-referendum period will see more self-confident opposition forces emerge, raring for a fight back, a result of RTE’s ‘victory’ he didn’t count on. On the evening of the election, he uttered an antiquated Turkish saying, Atı alan Üsküdar’ı geçti (He who grabbed the horse has passed Üsküdar, roughly meaning ‘I won, and everyone will just have to learn to live with it.’). But then again, we saw that in fact, he didn’t even get past Üsküdar.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
17 years down, how many to go?  Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

 

Turkish Referendum Looms on April 16th

Once again, I’m compelled to post a missive from my dear—albeit anonymous— friends in Turkey. They remain anonymous with good reason.

As you may know, Turkey faces a referendum that will strengthen the power of the president, effectively weakening the country’s parliamentary system and the government’s checks and balances. President Erdoğan, now in his fourteenth year in office, could remain in power another 13 years. He has already used the coup attempt as reason to close  down liberal newspapers and television stations and jail hundreds of military and education personnel. He has unabashedly used government funds to promote his move toward dictatorship for Turkey. Frightening.

Here’s the news from my friends on the inside:

No! No! A Thousand Times No!

The cruise missile attack by the Trump administration on a Syrian army base this week, in addition to further delaying an end to the slaughter and destruction in our neighbor Syria, has added another layer of anxiety here in Turkey as we head toward next Sunday’s referendum. The attack has put more wind in the sails of our President, who has been militating for the overthrow of the Syrian government since 2011.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
The Grand Bazaar on a National Holiday demonstrates the patriotism of the Turkish Republic

We suspect that our readers by this time have heard about as much as they can take about the Turkish referendum. The authors of this newsletter have certainly had enough and can’t wait for the campaign to be over. Fortunately for our sanity all campaigning has been banned during the coming week leading up to the vote. We’ve been suffering from a form of political bi-polar disorder – one day hopeful, next day down in the dumps. So we will not belabor the point. Our final appraisal is this: Should ‘Yes’ win, the results can have no legitimacy in the eyes of any impartial observer. Why?

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
A Turk selling flags  the New Mosque

1. The referendum is being conducted while Turkey is being ruled under a State of Emergency, giving authorities limitless powers to intimidate and crack down on free speech, the media and the right to assembly.

2. The third largest party in Parliament, the Kurdish-based HDP is under severe attack, its leadership in jail, and the municipalities it administered seized and placed under receivership. Even their ‘No’ campaign song in Kurdish has been banned. (Probably because it’s cute and catchy, anathema to most Turkish politicians. Plus, you don’t need to know Kurdish to get the message.)

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
One of my favorite photos—a patriotic Turk walks the Istanbul Marathon

3. The President and Prime Minister have unabashedly used the resources of the state, paid for by the taxpayers, to campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

4. The media, and especially the TV networks, have shamelessly favored the ‘Yes’ campaign in their news coverage, and this in a country that has the highest level of TV viewing in the world.

5. Thug attacks on ‘No’ proponents and their meetings have placed serious restraints on the ability of the naysayers to campaign. No wonder so many people say they are undecided in poll surveys.

6. And finally, the yea-saying government has total control over the entire referendum process, including ballot counting and handling of any challenge to the results that might arise.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
An Ataturk monument to a secular democracy, Arnavutköy, Turkey

In spite of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s apparent total dominance, most opinion polls say it’s still too close to call. Whatever the official results on April 17th, Turkey will remain a deeply divided country with an uncertain future. However, should a ‘No’ vote prevail against all odds, it would mean a humiliating defeat for those who have been curtailing the most basic democratic rights and closing down political space for those struggling for social justice.

We say No! No! A thousand times No! in the referendum and No! to the continuation of the war in Syria.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
This colorful patriot could often be seen on Istiklal, Freedom Street

*  *  *

As a follow up to our ‘Turkish Hairlines’ newsletter posting, we can’t hold ourselves back from reporting that the Turkish President, during a ‘Yes’ campaign rally at the presidential palace entitled “‘Yes’, of course, for a beautiful Turkey”, signed a decree under the State of Emergency (!) authorizing beauticians at beauty salons to do laser hair removal. This is an extremely popular procedure among Turkish women which was formerly restricted, for safety and health reasons, to dermatologists in government-approved hospitals and clinics. Was this an indication of the kind of Presidential decrees we can expect if ‘Yes’ prevails on April 16? Another reason to vote ‘No’.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You Must only to love them
Oh, what lies ahead for the Turkey I’ve grown to love?

A Turkish election about presidential power

I just received this message from friends in Istanbul and wanted to pass it on to Turkophiles like myself. They prefer to remain anonymous.

“On Sunday, April 16th, Turkish voters (including yours truly) will go to the polls to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the package of constitutional amendments that, if passed, will change Turkey’s governing structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Supporters of the ‘yes’ vote say that a president with strong executive powers will mean a strong and stable Turkey, be good for the economy and put an end to terrorism. Supporters of a ‘no’ vote claim that the kind of presidential system being proposed would severely weaken parliament, increase political pressure on the judiciary and open up the country to the real possibility of authoritarian one-man rule. (We won’t have any pesky judges, for example, overruling presidential executive orders since the president’s influence over high judiciary bodies will be greatly enhanced.)”

Turkey, elections, Erdogan, presidency, annmariemershon.com
What is the future of the Turkish secular democracy?

And they continue,

“The campaign will most likely be a very intense – and ugly – one. Both the president and prime minister have drawn a virtual equal sign between voting no and supporting terrorism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been advocating the change for some time now, his ruling AK Party and the nationalist MHP will be going all out for a ‘yes’ vote. The main opposition CHP and the Kurdish-based HDP, the other two parties in parliament, are strongly opposed to the amendments. Current polls predict a tight vote. The fact that the referendum vote is taking place during the State of Emergency and with the main leadership and much of the secondary leadership of the HDP in jail on charges of supporting terrorism means very tough going for the ‘no’ vote campaign.”

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
A president seeking more power: Recep Tayyyip Erdoğan

I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to influence the vote, but it’s important to keep informed. If you have contact with Turks, it might behoove you to do some campaigning to keep the country secular and the courts strong.

 

Let me share my tale…

You must only to love them, Ann Marie Mershon, annmariemershon.com, https://www.amazon.com/You-must-only-love-them-ebook/dp/B01DFUGIEI

I spent some amazing years teaching in Turkey, and I’d be happy to send you copies at a discount. Contact me to share this tale with friends and family. And if you haven’t read it yet, well, prepare to be surprised. Five Stars on Amazon with 53 reviews. Order before December 15th, because I’ll be off on yet another adventure.

Shameless self-promotion, I know.

Sigh…

 

 

An update from Turkey: OHAL

Many people have asked me how things are in Turkey since the coup attempt. In addition to a devastating downturn in tourism, life has changed—a bit for some and incredibly for others. My favorite ex-pat couple wrote a blog about Turkey for years, but because their interests lean toward the political, they’ve shifted it from the web to an e-mail format. Sad, but understandable. They’ve given me permission to share their most recent missive, though they asked that I not use their names. Sad again, especially since Turkey was lauded as a secular democracy. Was.

Turkey, annmariemershon.com,
The domes of the Blue Mosque now attract fewer tourists.

Here’s their update on how things are going:

HAIL TO THE CHIEF

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
The Chief: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

If anything would stimulate a person’s desire to turn on, tune in, drop out and forget about it all, it’s some of the happenings this year in Turkey. What with suicide bombings, seemingly endless internal and external savage war, the July 15th summer surprise coup attempt and the resultant mass exodus of tourists and foreign residents, the temptation to seek comfort in strong liquid refreshment is compelling.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
The Galata Tower watches over a quieter Istanbul.

However, that outlet is not considered available for observant Muslims. But just to be sure, the governor of the central Anatolian province of Yozgat recently announced that under the authority of Turkey’s State of Emergency imposed after the coup attempt, he was closing all places serving alcohol as, in his opinion, they constitute a threat to the family. Although he subsequently backed off of a blanket shutdown of every single such place, we’re certain that it will be even harder to enjoy a drop in Yozgat than before, and even then it was a pretty dry place.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Now who will buy the colorful Turkish carpets?

The State of Emergency (OHAL) in Turkey, recently given a 3-month extension, has become a source of major trauma for a huge number of people in Turkey. More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs, many of them teachers and other public employees, all of them alleged to have either links to the Gülen movement, blamed for the coup attempt, or to the PKK. Hundreds of businesses have been confiscated by the government due to supposed links to the Gülen movement. Dozens of media outlets have been closed, including many pro-Kurdish or left-leaning newspapers and TV stations, on allegations of spreading terrorist propaganda. Finally, more than 30,000 people have been jailed, including a number of prominent journalists, intellectuals and authors. To make room for them, an equal number of prisoners were discharged from the prison system. All of these measures have turned the OHAL into a powerful tool for the gradual consolidation of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka ‘the Chief’), who has declared that even a year of emergency rule may not be sufficient.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Turkey’s stunning beauty is enjoyed by fewer tourists.

Getting back to our Yozgat governor, an understandable resultant side effect of this massive purge has been the spectacle of Erdoğan loyalists falling all over themselves opportunistically trying to outdo one another to prove their devotion to the Chief. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak columnist Aydın Ünal writes of the emergence of individuals and groups who he describes as sycophants and flunkies who declare themselves “the most pro-Chief,” “the genuine pro-Chief,” “the essential pro-Chief people.” These self-promoters do all they can to criticize and taint others by calling into question their devotion to the Chief.

Turkey, Istanbul, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Who will enjoy the culinary treats of the now-deserted Istiklal Caddesi?

Where is this going? Hard to say, but we would guess that one outcome may be that we’re headed for a new constitution which includes a change to a ‘Turkish-style’ Presidential system with, you guessed it, the Chief at the helm. Barkeep, another round, please! … Barkeep! Uh, barkeep?

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Beer drinking may go to the dogs with OHAL.

 

I extend a HUGE thank-you to my dear expat friends. Good information, delivered with a touch of humor. Love those guys! By the way, they make the best martinis on the planet. If they can find the liquor.

(The photos are mine.)

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You must only to love them.

It’s the truth, according to my friend Uygar. To control Turkish students “you must only to love them.” He was right, and his ungrammatical advice is the title of a new memoir about my years in Turkey—finally, finally, finally finished! Complete! Finito! Bitmiş!

Whew!

PINK-Rose-Colored-Glasses-300x193I must admit, I wore rose-colored glasses much of the time, but this book does explore some of the darker sides of my experience, too, like being caught in a big demonstration with riot police:

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And then there was the disastrous soccer match–Oh, my!

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And believe me, it’s honest. You’ll see when you read it. No holds barred on this one.

If you followed my escapades over the years you might find this account a walk down memory lane. If you haven’t, perhaps it will pique your interest in Turkey, a country I grew to love—deeply.

Turkey has a wealth of history, amazing edifices and artifacts, and astounding terrain, but the true beauty of the country is its people. I hope I’ve shown that in my stories.
I don’t want to spoil the book for you. In fact, I’d love for you to read it. The e-book is under four dollars, and it’s also available as a paperback. Reviews so far have been excellent, so I’m confident you’ll enjoy it. Click on the book below to transport yourself to Amazon:

Cover 795KB

And if you’d like to try something new, there’s a rafflecopter giveaway for the book through May 16th. Here’s the link for that.

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Istanbul—The Rest of the Story

Our second week in Istanbul was less eventful, mostly because we’d been pummeled by the Turkish cold bug. Poor Lynette had it the whole time we were there. So unfair!

I started feeling punk on the way back from Cappadocia. I knew I had a fever by the time we got to the Kayseri Airport, so we went up to the cafeteria to get some hot water for a cup of Tylolhot, the Turkish cold remedy that we basically mainlined for the rest of our stay. Well, enough of that. The show must go on!

Far more delicious than our Tylolhot was the Turkish Delight:Locum—yum! Also known as Turkish Delight. Ann Marie's Istanbul
I talked Lynette (the Taxi Queen, as I later learned) to forego a taxi and take the shuttle bus to Taksim, 3/4 of the way home. It was a comfortable ride in a beautiful bus. Never mind that it took 1 1/2 hours. When we got to Taksim I suggested the funicular and tram (public transport), but Lynette was feeling crummy so we grabbed a taxi. Our driver seemed nice enough, but as we got closer to Sultanahmet he began complaining more and more. Many of the taxi drivers don’t know the city well, and he tried to drop us off a half-mile from our destination. No way! We finally got him to drop us off a few blocks from the apartment, and I handed him the full 110 lira that was on the meter (about $45). He pulled the same trick our previous driver had pulled, swearing that I’d given him two 5’s instead of 50’s. I said “HAYIR, Çok ayip!” (NO, shame on you!) and we stormed off in spite of his protests. I wouldn’t advise anyone to trust an Istanbul taxi driver. When we told Musa about it, he asked if we’d gotten his taxi number, but we hadn’t. From now on, I’ll take down the taxi number before I ever step into an Istanbul taxi. Oh, FURY!

Each day is punctuated by five (I think six) calls to prayer. Here’ s evidence from a small mosque that these are broadcast live by each mosque’s imam:

The imam's sound studio and stairs to the minaret, Ann Marie's Istanbul
On Friday I felt better, although Lynette felt worse, so she stayed in while I headed off to Arnavütköy and Robert College. It was a sunny day and my heart filled with nostalgic warmth as I climbed the long hill to campus.

Robert College’s main building, Gould Hall (in autumn):

Gould Hall, Robert College, Istanbul, once the American Girls' College. Ann Marie's Istanbul

The campus had hardly changed, although it boasted a new teacher’s lounge (a previous computer lab) and a beautifully renovated library. I got to chat with a number of my teaching cronies, all of whom were almost as happy to see me as they were eager for their spring break, which began that day. I also basked in enthusiastic hugs from former students, both male and female. I’ll never get over how warm the Turks are; I feel true affection both for and from my former students.

I trekked down to Arnavütköy to the bank and was pleased to see my gypsy friend still selling flowers on the main street.

A daily scene on the street in Arnavutköy, a gypsy flower merchant. Ann Marie's Istanbul
After a chatty cocktail hour at Bizimtepe, the Robert College alumni country club attached to the campus, I trekked back down the hill to head home. I expected a packed bus at rush hour, and I got one. It took an hour to crawl along the Bosphorus to Kabataş, where I’d catch the tram home—a quicker ride. When I got there I just missed a tram and had to wait for the next one, usually about 3-5 minutes. Well, it started to drizzle as the crowd increased, but no tram. After 20 minutes an announcement (in Turkish) informed us that the trams were stuck in a traffic jam in Sultanahmet near the train station. Sigh… We stood in that rain for nearly a half hour, and very few of us had umbrellas. Heck, it had been a gorgeous day!
A kind young man gave up a seat for me in the tram, one of the few perks of having white hair. By the time I got to the Sultanahmet stop I’d quit shivering, but another six-block walk in the rain didn’t do my cold any good. By the time I got back I was losing my voice, which was totally gone the next morning.
Lynette and I did manage to get out a few more times, but we had to cancel three social engagements because we just weren’t feeling that great. So—Bahadir, Julide, and Mark and Jolee: I’ll definitely see you on the next visit!

I couldn’t resist including this view over the Golden Horn from the Süleymaniye Mosque:

Overlooking Istanbul from the Süleymaniye Mosque, Ann Marie's Istanbul
We did manage a short trek to the Maiden’s Tower for tea. The Maiden’s Tower (Kız Kilesi) is steeped in myths, my favorite one that it was built by a sultan to protect his daughter from a foretold death at age 18. The sultan visited his daughter regularly, and on her 18th birthday he brought her a basket of food and gifts, unaware that someone had sneaked a viper into the basket. Of course, it struck and killed his precious princess.

The Maiden’s Tower perches in the Bosphorus just across from Sultanahmet near Uskudar:

The Maiden's Tower, Istanbul: Ann Marie's Istanbul

This princess is having her wedding photos taken in front of the Maiden’s Tower—note the hair-covering headpiece.

Turkish wedding photo on the Bosphorus, Ann Marie's Istanbul
We also found our way on the metro to the Chora Church (Kariye), a stunning Byzantine church near the old city wall that has been cleaned and renovated. Sadly, the naos (main area) of the church was closed for renovation, but there were plenty of beautiful mosaics and frescoes for us to see. It’s supposed to be one of the best preserved Byzantine churches in the world.

This stunning dome is a part of the narthex decorations in the Chora Church:

A dome in the Chora Church, Istanbul, Ann Marie's Istanbul

And this glittering masterpiece decorates a section of the ceiling of the narthex:

Chora Church Narthex dome, Istanbul: Ann Marie's Istanbul
After both outings we came home and collapsed on the couch. Energy levels were NOT high.
We’d planned a trip to Emirgan Park on Monday to see the tulip displays, but we just didn’t have the energy. Instead, we headed down to nearby Gülhane Park, just below Topkapı Palace. The tulips there were in full bloom, and people were out enjoying them, snapping photos and basking in the beauty of Istanbul’s Tulip Festival.

This river of tulips and hyacinths (not all blooming yet) flows under the bridge in the background.

Spring tulips in Gülhane Park, Istanbul: Ann Marie's Istanbul

In spite of a cloudy day, people basked in the luscious displays of Istanbul’s Tulip Festival.

Turkish lovelies bask among the tulip displays, Istanbul: Ann Marie's Istanbul

This little miss waited her turn to pose with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic:

A junior patriot poses with the esteemed Atatürk : Ann Marie's Istanbul

And this little dolly was pleased to pose for a tulip snapshot:

Every Turk loves tulip season: Ann Marie's Istanbul
We topped off our final evening with a bowl of mercimek (lentil soup) in a small restaurant near our apartment. Pretty quiet, but nice. Istanbul is a good place, even for those a bit under the weather. Bed by nine, and up by 2 AM to catch the airport shuttle. No more taxis for us!

From Istanbul to Cappadocia

Ah, heaven! Back in my beloved Turkey again. I’m actually here to work on the guidebook I wrote with my friend Edda, Istanbul’s Bazaar Quarter~Backstreet Walking Tours. If you haven’t bought one yet, you might find it interesting.

4d Hans book cover

I’m updating information, improving the walking directions, and taking care of some contractual issues before we have the book developed into a phone app. My friend Lynette has been an indispensable aide, my guinea pig as she attempts to follow written walk directions with neither maps nor photos to guide her. We’ve improved on nearly all of the 100 sets of directions in the book, and let me tell you, we were greatly relieved to finish the last walk. We celebrated by treating ourselves to a dinner of fasuliye (spiced, stewed beans), pilaf, and eggplant hot dish near the Süleymaniye Mosque. It was fabulous (and quite reasonable).

Lynette on top of the Sair Han overlooking the city and the Golden Horn:

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Speaking of reasonable, I feel bad for the Turks, as the lira is weak right now. It’s a GREAT time for Americans to travel here, though. When I taught here a dollar was about 1.3 to 1.6 lira, and now a dollar is 2.6 lira. It makes for some cheap meals. Sadly, though, hotels and carpet dealers operate on the dollar, so no great deals there.

The ceiling of the Süleymaniye Mosque—cascading domes and arches:

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We spent our first four days in Istanbul in my friend Musa’s third floor apartment with two bedrooms and a stunning view over the Marmara. It even comes complete with a pair of cooing doves on the balcony. All this space is a luxury, especially in the Sultanahmet location. Unfortunately, Lynette caught a nasty cold on the plane and has been lying low much of each day.

My friend Musa Başaran dyes fibers and designs kilims. The design he’s showing on the computer will be fabricated in tulips next week by the Haghia Sophia:

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I’m posing beside the silk threads Musa uses in his own kilims:

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On Saturday I ferried out to join my friend Sandra on Burgazada, one of the Princes Islands. It was a treat to revisit its horse carriages and incredible vistas. No cars allowed sure works for me!

This is the local taxi service as well as an adventure for tourists:

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On our ride back from the island Sunday morning Sandra confronted a young man who was going to light up a cigarette on the ferry (in spite of clear NO SMOKING signs). They ended up in quite a quarrel with him insisting that people should resist unreasonable rules. A Turkish man stepped in to support Sandra, but we all just ended up shaking our heads. Turks can definitely be stubborn. Actually, I’m surprised at how many Turkish people still smoke in spite of all the information about the health risks. The entire cover of Turkish cigarette packages is a warning about smoking.

My friend Sandra on our ferry ride back to the city, cloaked in fog:

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Before we knew it, the time had come to head for Cappadocia. Lynette and I decided to forego the lengthy public transport to the airport (3 hours, 35 lira total) and grab a taxi. It should have cost about 100 lira (now only $40). “Traffic problem,” our driver said, “taxi 200 to 250 lira.”

“Turn on the meter,” I told him, and he did, but  it stopped at 23.5 lira. (Gosh, I wonder how.) When I asked about it he said it was automatic. I was mad. When we arrived at the airport he asked for 260 lira. What???? By that time smoke was pouring from my ears. I told him to wait and walked over to the taxi stand. Another driver said it should cost about 130-140 lira from Sultanahmet. I stormed back to our driver and gave him 140 lira. He called me a crazy woman. Yup! I hate when this happens. I’ve heard that taxi drivers will often bilk tourists out of money, and if I hadn’t known what to do (and known a little Turkish), we’d have spent an extra $50 on that trip.
We thoroughly enjoyed Cappadocia. I’ve fallen hard for Göreme, and the Kelebek Hotel is like a kiss on the cheek. We woke the first morning to a bevy of balloons floating through the sky, recalling memories of our balloon ride the last time we were in Cappadocia.

IMG_9445Most of the stone formations in Cappadocia have been carved out as homes:

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I happily connected with old friends at the hotel (Mehmet and Hasan), and we stopped in to visit with Ali, a carpet dealer who took us dancing a few years ago when we came with a tour. According to Hasan, Göreme is about the size of my home town of Grand Marais, about 2000 residents but it has 143 hotels. Amazing. A good percentage of them are cave hotels, too.

A bevy of back-street signs directing tourists to the many cave hotels:

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And look who I discovered walking along near those signs:

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On our second day in Cappadocia the power went out—not just in our area, but all over Turkey. I can’t begin to imagine what the traffic must have been in Istanbul. It’s a nightmare even when the stoplights are functioning. Fortunately, our hotel had a generator, so we had both lights and internet.

We ate that evening at the Dibek Restaurant, and thankfully they, too, had a generator. They serve regional foods prepared by the family under the direction of Anne-Anne (Grandmother). The decor is traditional with floor cushions and low tables. I went back to thank them for the fabulous meal, and they were tickled that I could speak Turkish. It warms my heart to reach out to them in their own language.

Lynette and I wait patiently for our dinner to arrive at the Dibek. We weren’t the first diners—there were two other tables that early.

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The next day Lynette was a bit under the weather, so I hiked alone: five challenging kilometers through the Pigeon Valley and up to the top of Uçhısarı, which was once a castle overlooking the entire valley. The highest point in Cappadocia, this castle was carved from the soft rock of Cappadocia’s tallest peak over 2000 years ago. It’s pocked with windows and doorways carved into the stone, and I wasn’t sorry that they’ve added stairs around the outside up to the summit. Lots of stairs.

A view of Uçhısarı from about halfway through the Pigeon Valley:

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And then another more up close and personal:

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I later learned that people lived in these carved-out homes until 1950, when they were relocated to hand-built homes for safety. The next year a large section of Uçhisar caved in during an earthquake.

The next day was a tearful goodbye to the magic of Cappadocia, and back to Istanbul. Ah, Istanbul!