The Fat Lady Sings: Goodbye Asia, Hello Istanbul–and Sarajevo…

The Great Mosque of Istanbul across the water...

The Great Mosque of Istanbul across the water…

June 2014

Going round trip from LA to Bangkok, via the Atlantic and Europe, using frequent-flyer miles, I pretty much got a free stopover in Istanbul, so sounded good, thought I might take a quick trip down to the border with Iraq and cross over into the Kurdish quarter; word is you could go in without ever really checking out of Turkey, just come back to the same border crossing and officially you were never really gone. Just stay in north Iraq where the Kurds are friendly reasonable people.

There’s only one problem: a new militant group called ISIL or ISIS or something like that that’s making sudden inroads into the region and causing problems where control is scarce or non-existent. It seems that they spun out of the Syrian war and have spilled across the border. Only time will tell if they’re ultimately successful. But I don’t want to hang around Istanbul for a week, and there’s nowhere else in Turkey I really want to go for that length of time.

Red-eye flight to Istanbul

Red-eye flight to Istanbul

So I buy a cheap air ticket to Sarajevo, Bosnia, one of my favorite places from previous European excursions, and a perfect match to Turkey, in many ways more Turkish than it, like Laos to Thailand or Vietnam to china. If you want to see old traditional Turkey, then go to Bosnia. In the meantime I get to see a different part of Istanbul around Taksim Square, where I stay in a local hostel and chat with an itinerant DJ called King Kwazulu, who’s on layover with family—cool.

Other than that it’s pretty much (window)-shopping and (non)-dining and long walks on warm days. All the tourists are over across the drink at Sultanahmet, so this is a welcome change to all that hustle and hassle. Still it gets old after a couple days, and soon I’m ready for the ‘real’ Turkey—in Sarajevo. It’s changed in the five years since I was last here, mostly good for them. Srebenica’s massacre has receded farther into the distance, and Sarajevo is firmly back on tourist itineraries. For me, though, that means locally-made handwoven kilims are hard to find and the prognosis is bleak.

Pedestrian Mall near Taksim Square, Istanbul

Pedestrian Mall near Taksim Square, Istanbul

This is Europe; rug-weaving is a dying art. Still it’s a nice place to visit for the incongruities alone: a Muslim city with a population of a cool half mil, with historic populations of Jews and Christians, Serbo-Croatian in genes and language, surrounded by mountains of Winter Olympic quality; in short: “the Jerusalem of Europe.” They have an important film festival, too. So I buy some Pakistan-made kilims and head out. They need the work. Funny, I never saw any there. This trip’s over. The Fat Lady sings.

For the last month, after abruptly cutting a tour of Laos short, I’ve been “looking for Thailand (mostly),” so to speak, just as others before me have gone “looking for America,” making my (probably) last tour (maybe, that is), seeing if there’s anything I forgot, seeing if there’s anything I missed, seeing if there’s anything I should come back for, and eventually writing it all up—my ‘swan song’ so to speak, for a country I spent about a decade of my life in, depending on how you count.

Roman Bridge in Sarajevo, Bosnia

Roman Bridge in Sarajevo, Bosnia

This is after more than six months of continuous travel, mostly elsewhere, no more than a week in any one place—a sort of ‘personal best’ for me in forty years of travel—and including seven countries (five of them new to me), but more time in India than any other one, and including such popular destinations as Afghanistan and Pakistan. Constant travel is actually (a) pretty good exercise.

If the past month started slowly with a (literal) whistle-stop tour on the train down to south Thailand, then it certainly picked up steam in the last 12 days, with 12 cities, 12 hotels (none over $20/nt, all with WiFi, none with reservations), all five regions of Thailand, and some 3000km/1800mi (all by land, most by 3rd class train).

Turkish food

Turkish food

And in case you’re wondering, none of those places was Phuket, or Koh Samui, or Krabi, or any other tourist destination, just the opposite, in fact, places like Nakorn Sri Thammarat, Aranyaprathet, Roi Et, Khon Kaen, Phitsanulok, Phichit, and Lopburi. I look for places where I can be a person, not a Farang (Western foreigner). In fact (drum roll here, please): I saw only maybe a dozen other tourists the whole time, not bad, and no beaches, bitches, or booze, the things most people come to Thailand for, until the end, at Kanchanaburi and Bangkok…

Now I’ve done my side-trip to south Europe and the Mideast, too, and it’s time to ‘go home’, wherever that is. I didn’t plan this final tour to coincide with my 60th birthday, but that’s the way it worked out, a time for new beginnings and end games. I think I’ve just graduated Thai school; that is: my graduate studies in Thai school. The new gap year is 60. So ends my little swan song. This trip is over, just a quick stop over in Toronto, then back to LA and on to….? Huh? What? This is hypertravel, baby.

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