Loser’s Club

LOSER’S CLUB: Or, Eşşek Var

CAST

ERNIE: Bad dog, dirt bird, vagabond.

ANNA: Hunter-of-donkeys and wind-seeker.

RACHEL: German for Revenge.

PHILLIP: German by birth.

KANYE WEST: Kanye West.

SETTING: The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (Kuzey Kibris Turk Cumhuriyeti)

“You want to go to fucking KARPAZ??!” the man shouted at us from the bus. He looked like he’d been traveling through Nepal for ten years and had only now arrived back into civilization. The wind howled above our heads. “You have to drive…all day! All day to get there! Only the fucking DONkeys live there!!” It sounded like he was shouting about Vietnam. The other bus passengers were staring.

“Yes, we are trying to find the donkeys,” I said.

“You cannot! You have to go…you have to go to Famagusta! And then take a BUS!” Spittle flew from the guy’s mouth. “There is no public transportation to Karpaz. No one lives there. No one goes there. Fucking KARPAZ!” He pulled the folding bus doors closed. We were outside at the bus stop. After a few more minutes of searching, a different bus driver agreed to take us 3 km outside of town, to a village along his route.

The Karpaz Peninsula is a hundred kilometer long spit of land ejecting into the mediterranean from mainland cyprus. On the tip, there is a wilderness preserve with genuine Cypriot Yaban Eşşekler: wild donkeys. The donkeys are the size of large dogs. We were in Cyprus to see the donkeys. And for Beach Time. Anna and I wanted to get out of Istanbul for election day, and had convinced Phillip to come join us. Rachel was on her way back to the states from a volunteer program in Italy, and agreed to come with us as well. Rachel was pining for her Italian boyfriend whom she’d left behind, and Phillip had just broken up entirely with his. Anna had just gotten fired. Everyone was looking for no-frills escapism. Donkeys and beach time are absolutely good enough reasons to leave the country.

The previous day we’d landed and gone straight to the beach—our bus took us from the Ercan International Airport to Magusa (or Famagusta, depending on whether you ask the Greeks or the Turks). We had no idea where we were or where we were going, other than the name of the town. we rolled through flat scabby green fields, and listened to turkish pop. (one song which stuck out was a woman bellowing SEN AAAAAAAAŞŞŞŞŞŞŞŞŞŞŞK!! in every line of every chorus.) Our first impression of the town of Famagusta was an ornate and vaguely Indic monument to Ataturk protruding from the middle of a roundabout. The roundabout was bordered by the minibus station, a walled castle, and a two-floor mini mall.

We went to the top floor of the mini mall and got the best gozleme I’ve ever had—sour, salty cheese tucked in pastry, with fresher vegetables than I’d had in Turkey. It was sunny and hot. The tablecloth was a clear vinyl with pink flower prints, and a dirty ruffled pink cloth edge, and it will haunt me forever. Phillip spoke to the women who ran the place, and learned that Famagusta had been a Crusader outpost, and several Christian kings had ruled here and left their fortresses and churches behind. After breakfast, we strolled across a dry moat into the walled city, which turned out to be a struggling shopping core. Old ladies sold floppy hats and jacked CDs along the cobblestone street. Beyond the pale commerical lining of its single boulevard, the city flatlined into featureless white buildings.

We made it to the beach (and accidentally encountered a falling-down red brick monastery on the way) and acted like children. Anna and I crawled across the sand to the water as giant turtles. The beach was pretty empty–only a few other turkish families and one British one were reclining under the umbrellas.  More than half the beach was fenced off–by falling down scraps of barbed wire and green canvas–and we could see a glittering stretch of sand behind it, presided over by empty buildings. We slowly realized that all of the resorts behind us were empty. A ghost city. It was eerie.

After beach time, we took a minibus to Girne, on the northern coast, as there was supposed to be a neat city there where we could stay the night. We had all planned on sleeping outside, since it was actually warm here, compared to Istanbul’s miserable April. On our drive into the city we kept spotting half-finished concrete buildings and saying, “yes, we can sleep there no problem.” HOWever, it was super windy, super super windy, and when we arrived it was no longer warm. We got off the bus–

{a note about Cyprus: No public transport developed because a lot of rich people live there, and they all own cars, so the existing buses are all forty years old and look like they belong in cuba. They are colorful majestic wagons with big triangles on the doors and windows, which makes me believe the illuminati run the entire island.}

–we got off the bus at a beautiful town set at the foot of a mountain range next to the sea. Curiously, most of the town was abandoned concrete construction sites. Having no idea on where to stay, nor where to go, nor even really an idea of where we were, we found a sign pointing for

“LOSER’S CLUB –> 159 steps”

We followed it to a bar set in a gravel alleyway. The owner spoke fluent english and said he’d been unconsciously collecting decor for the bar for 14 years. He’d been a college professor, but his real dream was to open a bar.

“What are all these words on the wall?” Anna asked.

“It’s from the movie!” the owner said, and pointed to a movie poster in the corner. “Loser’s club!” And he went behind the bar and grabbed a stack of burned dvds and gave us one. “It’s a pirated copy. This is a pirate island, don’t you know?” and he laughed. It was his favorite movie. We promised to watch it as soon as we got the chance.

The bartender saw us looking lost, and she invited us to stay at her flat within four seconds of meeting her. She drove us there and said to eat or drink whatever, and to shower, and then come back to Loser’s club. We listened to more Kanye and returned. The owner was being social, and invited us into a separate den in the bar, where about 12 cypriot girls were talking about cypriot things. One of them told me that in cypriot turkish, “napang” is “what’s up,” which was an exciting language discovery. We were in there, making awkward conversation for like half an hour (the owner had vanished) when the waitress came by, and said, “There are lots of open spaces at the bar, if you want to sit down now.” I thought to myself, we are sitting down? Wait, what–

And then one of the plumper Cypriot girls said “BYEEEEEEEE!!!” with a big fake sarcasm smile. We left, ruffled and upset. She I guess had asked the waitress to ask us to move, instead of asking for some time alone with her friends. It was then I reached my conclusion: Turkish culture, as an aggregate, behaves with the logic of middle-schoolers. We went to the bartender’s flat and slept luxuriously. (at least she was nice.) It was this night we found the trip’s soundtrack: Bound 2 and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, both by Kanye West. We replaced many of the words with “dog,” “bark,” or “donkey.”

The next morning, we left at about ten (or maybe eleven—the local elections were happening at the same time as Daylight Savings, and Erdogan had decided to delay the clock’s progression for a day, and it was unclear as to whether northern cyprus was on the same schedule.)  That was the day we had set aside for Donkey Quest. We played games with the bakery owner’s four year old and drank nescafe. We left, and found the bus station, which is where we met the aforementioned Karpaz Guy, yelling about the Cypriot peninsula as if it were ‘Nam.

We consulted maps on iPhones, and got a local bus up to a “village,” which was a place for rich people to vacation in nice houses. We found a fancy restaurant in between vineyards, and the owner spoke german. He and Phillip had a reserved and friendly conversation, and the owner gave us lunch materials: bread, cheese, tomato, and the best most glorious red pepper I’ve ever had. They were sweet, rich, and crunchy. We ate everything sitting down by the side of the road.

The rest of the afternoon was spent hitchiking up to Karpaz.  We never made it. We only saw fields of waving wheat and a withered tree. We walked along a path from one highway to its brother, and along the way, bought giant circular pretzels from a village baker. We met a baby goat on their porch. No donkeys. We gave up next to a stack of stones by the side of the road, and waited for a ride back to the capital.

A brother and his two sisters picked us up, and all seven of us crammed into the car. They gave us fresh Cypriot Lahmacun their mom had baked an hour ago. It remains the best lahmacun I’ve tasted. Puffy, tangy flatbread with spicy ground meat and greens on top. On the road back, I caught a glimpse of a herdette of three horsey animals–donkeys? Maybe? I pointed them out, but by the time the others had turned, they were gone.

They dropped us off in Nicosia, (or Lefkosa, depending on whether you ask the Greeks or the Turks.)  Unable to get a couchsurfer, we pooled our funds and got a cheap hotel room at Hotel Gold. We finished the last of our duty free rum. Phillip went off to the hamams to get lucky. Anna wasn’t feeling well, so she went to sleep, and Rachel and I wandered outside of the city walls and played in a rusty playground and got a waffle with ice cream. At a Lokanta near our hotel, we saw Phillip, who had not gotten lucky at all, and we all went back to Hotel gold, where there were no donkeys, and where we would await the morning of shuttling ourselves to the airport yet again. We’d gone to a loser’s beach and went on a loser’s quest. We were all losers. It was a wonderful trip.

We watched the movie a few nights later. It was about old men trying to be young on their late-night radio talk show. It was terrible.

9 June, 2014 12:34

it is so damn hot. we are in belgrad. belgrad is great. it is so damn hot.

We’re staying at the flat of a friend of my aunt’s. My aunt Gordana is from Belgrad. She knows a bunch of artists. They have a group called "Skart," which means something like "garbage," I think. We’re going on a walking tour of the old city tonight.

Belgrade is great because:

1. HOT. We went to a lake in the Sava river yesterday and I basically just fell in the green water forever. A fountain in the lake sprays water 50 feet into the air. There was a cafe at the lake, and we had beers and enormous, enormous giganto mongo burgers with Marija, whom we met through a mutual Istanbul friend. I climbed a tree and rescued some wild plums, and we ate them. It’s like being on vacation! That is so strange. Most of our trip has been normal ernie travel enjoyment, which means changing plans and itineraries at the last possible second a lot, and suddenly it’s hot and we’re in this very civilized city with cafes and street beer and a lake.

2. There is a Nkola Tesla museum, and a Tito museum. Both are closed because it is monday. (we made the mistake of adventuring through the heat to discover their monday closure.) We shall try again tomorrow.

3. In a park, we saw some public workout equipment, and this musclebound dude was spinning a wheel round and round and round. He looked like those walrus-mustachioed gentlement circa 1900 lifting big trapezoidal weights. But it’s 2014! In serbia! Wild.

4. The local beer is Jelen (pronounced "yellin’), and its logo is a bellowing elk.

5. We saw a collection of rocks set up to look like stonehenge, and we termed it Serbhenge and took a picture pretending to sacrifice the puppy upon the rocks a la Isaac/Abraham.

6. We got into the Belgrade Bus station at 5am, after not sleeping at all on the night bus from Sarajevo, and we were so tired we wandered up a broad avenue lined with bombed-out brick buildings and tram lines, and slept on a park bench in the rising sun.

7. our second night here, Nena, our contact via Gordana, told us to go to a finnish big-band show. They sang ellington and irving berlin hits, with finnish lyrics. It was great. (and only 3 euro??)

it’s literally too hot for me to think about anything else, but anyways it turns out belgrade is like the european culture experience you’ve always wanted–pedestrian streets dotted with cafes where they serve pizza, beer, and good coffee for really cheap next to big old castles, and you feel very sophisticated. Also I am very proud to say I can order in serbian now. Mogu li dobite jedem josh espresso? (that is all I can say.)

Next up on ernie’s blog: almost getting converted to catholicism in Hercegovina.

Black Mountain

Did you know that Montenegro means "black mountain" in italian? I basically did not ever think about that ever ever because Montenegro has always sounded like a place for James Bond to kick ass and do casino and bang shoot guns supermodels kaboom FAST CAR. Anyways. They have that too.Montenegro in Montenegrin is "црна гора," Tsrna Gora, which also means Black Mountain. The language is therefore "Black-Mountainese."

Wiseassery aside, this place is pretty beautiful. We are in the Bay of Kotor for a few nights. It’s Southern Europe’s "fjord" (not a real fjord, but not enough persnickity geologists to say otherwise, so w/e) and there’s a ton of old medieval villages built into the side of the mountains which surround the bay. It’s really, really, really nice. Kotor itself is a walled city jutting into the bay, full of cool old stone bulidings and streets, and a castle whose slender walls worm all the way up the side of the mountain. We stayed in a hostel which had moonlighted as a nobleman’s house in the somethingth-century. The owner, Nikola, played a lot of dubsteb and gave us free dinner. It worked. I felt like a nobleman.

But apparently most of Western Europe had the same idea. It is swarming with tourists. This is the most tourists that Anna and I have seen so far on our journey. Normally we stick to hostels or unusual ("unpleasant") destinations to beat the rush, but it turns out Kotor is a big tourist attraction. If you look in Lonely Planet’s "Europe on a Shoestring" brick of a guidebook, the Bay of Kotor is one of the top 24 experiences of your whole life. Whoa. How crazy is that. Of my whole, whole life, I am peaking here at Kotor’s 22 at the age of 25. Busloads of old, Germanic people unload at the front gates to wander around and take lots of photos before skittering off to their packaged accomodation for the night.

Anna and I, by contrast, arrived in Montenegro at four in the morning, and slept on a sandbar. We got on the bus from Prstina in Kosovo and I really, really thought it would be a short ride. Neither Kosovo nor Montenegro are particularly large counries, and since our day trips from Prstina had taken something like 45 minutes, I expected, oh, a two-hour bus ride. It was 9. Our bus left at 7pm and arrived at 4am. We were on the very southern coastal tip, in a weird town called Ulcinj. (pronunciation is up to you.) Because it was a night bus, we took our turkish sleeping pills, and were completely delirious upon arrival. We tried to find the beach. We went up a hill. We went across the road. We saw a pizza place. The pizza was 1 Euro. We ate the pizza. Some people offered us an apartment. We said no. We found a beach. We lay facedown in the sand. Some teenagers looked at us and made noises. We slept. It rained at about nine am, at which point we awoke, took the puppy to the cafes across the street from the very public beach, and got it some milk. We got another pizza.

We managed to find a real cheap place to stay, completely by accident, in Herceg Novi in the Bay of Kotor. Jeez, that is a mouthful to type out. Fingerful. I guess just pretend we’re in Casino, and James Bond is our friend. That might be easier. It’s not quite as adventurous as lying facedown in the sand for a few hours while your sedative wears off, but daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaayum:

20090719_Crkva_Gospa_od_Zdravlja_Kotor_Bay_Montenegro.jpg

puppy

A hostel owner in Himare gave us a puppy. He had four of them. Not like "he gave birth to four of them." Then he’d be some sort of horrible man-dog and instead of a puppy, I would have a horrible monster. He just had some extra puppies. From his dog. The puppy is a normal puppy.

There were a few days in Tirana, the capital, where we stressed out what to do with it. Though it had been a riot taking him around Albania, we couldn’t to abandon the pup to the street. Our German hostel owner was intent on proving that we Americans were stupid, and that the only possibility was either getting a "pet passport," which would take months; or getting a local animal shelter to adopt it, which is difficult because as we discovered, the only animal shelter in Albania doesn’t actually have a building. We met some other Americans who were like, "Just smuggle it in! Put it in a kangaroo pouch!" So we wrapped puppy in a towel and smuggled him into Macedonia. There, we met a motor-mouthed New ​Yorker who’d spent his childhood in Skopje, and took us to the vet, where we acquired such a pet passport in ten minutes for 5 euro. The vet’s office was a one-room office which, apart from a single shelf of medicine, was full of dog food. The vet looked like Mr. Rogers.

We are now in Kosovo, and today, we hung out with old Serbian men who sang songs of their people and drank rakija and one of them was an artist, so he had anna pose for a portrait. We have a sketch now from this afternoon. Good day.

The puppy is named after Skanderbeg, the hero of the Albanian people.

WHAT IS ALBANIA

I have only heard insane stories about Albania since I arrived yesterday. They are:

1. The country was completely isolated for fifty years because their communist dictator, Enver Hoja, was very, very paranoid. He thought that other western nations were out to destroy Albania and ordered the construction of thousands and thousands of tiny concrete bunkers all over the country. The count: one bunker for every three people. They look like little grey mushrooms.

2. Albanians cannot read maps. Maps were illegal in communist Albania, and would get you sent to the gulag. Older Albanians have difficulty with them. (Having asked several older albanians for directions using maps today, I can confirm this as true.)

3. Busking was also illegal, and would get you sent to the gulag.

4. There were only 600 cars in communist Albania, to be used only by Party officials. Now everyone has a car, and it is usually a Mercedes.

5. There were 8 city blocks in Tirana known as “The Bloc,” to be used and occupied only by party officials. Now, they are the center of nightlife for the city.

6. Enver Hoja told all the people of Albania that Albania was the richest country in the world.

7. Enver Hoja also told the people of Albania to build him a pyramid so that when he died, he could be embalmed and entombed within it in the manner of an Egyptian Pharaoh. They did so. Also, just in the manner of a real Egyptian pyramid, it was stripped and robbed within a few years of Enver Hoja’s death.

8. There may or may not be a secret escape tunnel leading from Enver Hoja’s basement into the mountains.

9. After Enver Hoja’s death, the people of Albania learned that the communist-portioned meals they had been eating were not, in fact, the fare of the richest countries in the world, and actually, their country was one of the poorest, which made them very upset and they started to smash everything in the country.

10. After Enver Hoja’s death, a lot of people lost their life savings to a Ponzi scheme set up by a used car salesmen, which made them very upset, and violent, and they took to the streets to rob each other and everyone went out with guns for protection.

11. Before the communists, Albania was governed by a tribal law code called “Kanun” which was all about blood fueds and how many daughters you could steal if your neighbor killed your cattle, and people used to hide in towers their whole life because it was safer, and then the communists came and partitioned the land into equal strips so there was no reason to kill each other over land disputes any more. Let it never be said that communism doesn’t work.

12. Also in pre-communist times, too many men kept dying from blood fueds, so women were allowed to socially switch and become men, and drink with the men, and play dominos with the men, and do business, and wear pants, and get married. They are known as the Albanian sworn mountain virgins.

13. Strangely, after all the crazy war and violence and insanity, modern Albania turned out to be a pretty nice place. People are very nice and very warm and hospitable. (Hospitality is part of Kanun.) Mom, Dad, Kel: All the guns are hidden away in closets now. The nice English people whom I learned all this information from have been coming here on and off for nine years, and she said she feels safer here than back in her hometown. The whole country feels like one big family, children of an estranged deposed communist pharaoh dictator entombed beneath a giant communist pyramid downtown.

14. Beer is seventy cents.

15. Raki, the poisonous moonshine of the balkans, is also seventy cents.

What is Albania? A high, effortless density of weird.

POSTSCRIPT: I didn’t even really tell you what I did today. If you want to know how I failed to find the biggest cave in europe, you can read about it in my upcoming and very exciting adventure travel guide. :)

the idyllic passing of days

I made the most accidentally incredible taco meat of my life last night. It was cinco de mayo. Which means, it is cinco de mayo in America right now! (not in mexico. We have stolen that holiday as another excuse for us whiteys to drink margaritas. Why should we need an excuse to drink margaritas?) Liquor is terribly expensive here. We got a bottle of wine and Anna made sangria, and Alex and Valentine came over for tacos and Game of Thrones.

I only have about a week more in Turkey before setting off on the Balkan tour. In a lot of ways I don’t feel ready (the apartment is exactly 0% packed up) and in other ways I do feel very ready (LET’S GO). I also simultaneously feel up to and not up to the task of writing a book, or traveling, or making the travel exciting enough to turn it into a book.

In the meantime, I get to wander around my neighborhood of Rasımpaşa talking to the friendly shopkeeps.

THE FRIENDLY SHOPKEEPS OF RASIMPAŞA

1. Pide guy.

He makes tiny little empanadas, or I guess the turk version of empanadas. Empanadalar. They are full of meat or potatoes or spinach and cheese. He always says good morning to me (even if it is not in fact morning) and butters the tops of the pies. They are 1,50 liras each (75 american cents).

2. Baklava guy.

I think his family runs this shop, which is approximately twenty feet from my front door, which is very dangerous if you don’t want to spend a lot of money on baklava and ice cream. He’s unusually young and healthy-looking for a Kadikoy shopkeep, which makes me suspect he is in school and helps out because he’s a nice guy. I was thinking about buying a car for this trip, maybe finding something incredibly cheap and driving it until it died in the middle of the mountains somewhere–after locating some ads, I asked Baklava guy to call the numbers listed, because let’s face it, though I can speak turkish pretty ok face-to-face, it’s nigh impossible to do phone communication. "Satılmış mı?" means "has it been sold yet?" It had. It would have been perfect, too. Thanks anyways, Baklava guy.

3. Strawberry man.

He works at the market. He is a long man with sunken cheeks, and the only thing I’ve ever seen him do is pour strawberries into a crate on stilts, and yell about the strawberries. "Eyyyyyyyyyyyyy çilek çilek çilek eyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy çilek çilek çilek." Can you imagine this happening in the US? A dude whose job it is to stand outside of the fruitstand and yell about the fruit. Really nice. Calls me "kanka" and always puts way to much into my fruit bag, about double of what I ask for.

I may have mentioned that I had my last day of English work last week too. I said goodbye to my students and two of them gave me books as parting gifts. I haven’t spent more than 40 hours total with these people, and one of them wrote "Türkiye’yi okulucu hatirla :) Mükkemel arkadaşlığın ve öğretmenliğin için teşekkür ederim. Good luck for your all life." It was really sweet. Stoneheart ernie got all choked up.

I ducked out of my communities here without really making a big deal of it or telling much of anyone. The students, the teachers, the a capella choir– it was a very dad thing to do. French exit. It’s hard to say bye.

fixin’ problems–sorun değil

besides kicking a lot of strange people out of my house (a story which I may share someday–it involves the most boring frenchman in the world, and a girl he managed to pick up at the bazaar) I have been fixing all sorts of things in the neighborhood.

Alex and Valentine live on a rooftop apartment, just like us, about a one-minute walk from the Bull. The Bull stands in the middle of Kadikoy, a big brass monument to…something. Bulls don’t even figure prominently into turkish mythos. I have no idea why there is a bull there. It’s just a gathering place. It’s on a circular traffic plateau surrounded by malls and a McDonald’s.

[[ASIDE McDonald's here, and I guess in a lot of european countries, is not viewed as a cut-rate burgerminute place. It's a classy cafe. Ice cream is still one lira, but it's got some prestige attached to it, strangely. The job, not the ice cream. Though the ice cream does taste better here than in the states. McDonald's is of course the trucker-stop top choice of food in america--here, fast food comes from small Bufes which have a big tower of chicken doner (made from cut rate chicken, or perhaps pigeon) and cheap bread and lemonade which more resembles antifreeze than fruit juice) and maybe if you're lucky, a window box of oily pilav. And they're always a little different. It's a strange inverse from the US, where the everpresent fast food restaurants are all the same and corporately owned]]

Anna and I went up to their apartment yesterday for May Day. It’s may day! That means everyone has the day off! Because it’s workers’ day! Apparently in the 1970′s, during the normal course of may day celebrations, 23 people were shot and killed in a riot in Taksim (not really sure who did the firing and killing–cops or protesters). So, every worker’s day since, the government does everything it can to prevent people from going to taksim, including beatings and tear gassings, because it’s "dangerous." A beautiful logic. We had loose plans to go visit the walls of the old city, until Will informed us that all public transit had been shuttered–subways, metrobus, and ferries. To get anywhere you’d have to walk. So instead we sat on the patio and day-drank.

HOWEVER, when we arrived, the patio was sunk. It had rained a few days prior, and the water was up to my ankles (in the deep end). Alex recommended we pour down sand and make a beach. The problem, she explained, was the pipe–it was clogged somewhere. It runs sideways inside a wall for about ten feet, before exiting the side of the building and dumping into the exterior drain pipe.

Valentine had just woken up, and shirtless, went into the back closet, where all things are kept. He managed to find a hose. I rolled up my pants and waded in, and threaded the hose into the pipe. I pushed it in until I could see it emerge from the exterior pipe.

"Ha! Look!" I said, and then pulled it back a little bit, and blew into the end. Nothing. I pulled back a little bit more, and blew into it again.

Water sprayed out from the end of the pipe, and suddenly the drain was overflowing, the exterior pipe was leaking everywhere. The patio began to drain. I looked over the edge. A wet artery of drain water, plus far-scattered spray drops, led from the walls of the building to the sidewalks and into the streets. A cranky man stood below, looking up. He was doing a "what is this??!" gesture with his hands. He held a scarf, and was trying to display it to me, from four stories below. Turns out, there is a scarf shop directly underneath that previously blocked drainpipe.

The patio was saved, anyways. We sat outside and enjoyed the day. We watched the police commission public buses and sit around, waiting for a riot. Remember, if the prime minister’s in town, his party gets to commission public buses to transport people to the rally; but if there’s a protest for May Day, the city shuts down the city. Happy May Day.