Where am I?

Where am I?

I asked myself that as I walked through the canyon-like hallways of cyclopean airport that serves this small city. Making a statement? And again as the customary isolation of Turkey gave way to the sight of two friends smiling and welcoming me outside the gate. It’s been a long time since that happened.

IMG_0123Where am I? I asked, accustomed to the asexuality of Eastern Turkish streets, but stepping out of my friends’ car onto a sidewalk littered with business cards for…strippers? Prostitutes? I was too bemused to lean down and check what the lingerie-clad lasses were selling.

I dropped off my bag, not yet ready for bed, and went for a walk around an unknown city at 2:00 AM. The humid air was full of gigantic fruit bats and the sidewalks were scattered with people, strolling in twos and threes through a spring evening’s easy celebration that was clearly going to last all night.

Where am I? I ask myself that a lot here. Where the beach is crowded with a forest of signs prohibiting swimming, outnumbered by the number of people splashing around behind them, while military helicopters cruise past overhead. Where the familiar reality of being the only tourist has given way to a four-storey hostel of backpackers and families, while tourist languages alternate with the native tongue on the street.

IMG_0075I get disoriented on streets packed with beautiful people, or I go to the beach and find Baywatch. Attractive young women in Versace gowns push baby strollers past boutique shops; the sunglasses are large, gold-accented, and cost more than my entire wardrobe; and outfits are never actually careless. Men constructed entirely of bumpy muscles crowd the exercise area by the beach, and some fellas are so much tanned skin, shining teeth, and handsome faces that I wonder when I fell into the male model yearbook.

Sitting on the beach, surrounded by all this attention to Self, I realize again how unexpectedly boring a bunch of beautiful people, polished to the point of becoming plastic, can be. Pretty faces made of clay float past, desperate in their maintenance of image, and I want to yawn. Ik zou liever met iemand kunnen praten. Precies één iemand… The nail parlors and hair salons do a brisk and continuous business.

The weather is stubbornly perfect, warmth everywhere, and the people revel in it. Gone is Turkish apparel, and out has come the skin, in broad well-tanned swaths. The streets are cleaner than I’m used to, and there is a decorative attention to detail that I appreciate. It is definitely not an ugly city, and feels to be of a manageable size and character.

But it ain’t no Santa Barbara.

IMG_0119I had no real idea of what to expect before I came here, just a barely-remembered screen shot of a journalist from the first Iraq War, reporting a couple missiles fired in this direction, and a child’s vague sense that this was not a place I’d want to be.

I was wrong about that. This is a fascinating place, with a dedication to celebration bound to make you smile, and enough virulently human psychology to leave your mind and soul smiling, crying, and stunned. I have also found a rich texture of friendship which has made it an oasis on a solitary wander.

In an hour I’ll be eating fresh-made hummus, served warm. Later tonight the city will calm and seem to sleep as families gather around tables for the traditional weekly meal, cultural rhythms played out among the roughly million people who live here. (I wrote this Friday morning, but didn’t have access to post it until now.) And in a couple days I’ll head to a name so familiar and metaphoric that I have trouble believing it will actually exist, and I can only ask myself,

where am I?