Head East, young man

Istanbul is a state of mind. And now that we were there, at the gates, literally, stepping through the wall was stepping onto the path that lead to all things the mysterious East could represent in an age where Google and Lonely Planet weren’t even dreams. Technically, we were still on the European continent, but in all ways that mattered, we were in Asia!  And we had barely any idea of what lay ahead.

So we just kept walking down the broad boulevard, periodically intoning Sultanahmet? at passersby and receiving in return a waving hand motion to continue down the road. Sultan Ahmet was the name of a famous mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, and reported to be in a part of the city with cheap hotels fit for the likes of us. It took two hours to walk there but that was fine because we were in a whirlpool of lights and sounds an smells unlike any street I’d ever experienced before. We grabbed a bite to eat and a small restaurant by pointing at dishes in the kitchen. Every bite an adventure! And I learned why you don’t drink Turkish coffee down to the bottom of the cup…

Before planning this trip, I had been told one could live on two dollars a day in Asia. Our cheap hotel was forty cents a night for each of us. Cokes were a nickel (well, whatever was in the Coca Cola bottle), tomatoes were two cents each, a loaf of bread six cents. This was going to be fun!

The next morning, after rising to the din of horns and buses and the fragrance of diesel fumes, we made a breakfast and decided top just explore the streets. Didn’t matter where we went-it was all so exotic and unlike Richmond, California, where I had been living, that I was just in a happy daze, taking pictures, snacking on whatever looked good, soaking it all in.

I was fascinated by all the small shops that specialized in one thing only. Want to buy a mirror,  or maybe get a picture framed? Here’s your man. Not the stern fellow in the portrait-that’s Attåturk, the “founder of modern Turkey” as people proudly told us. His portrait was everywhere and he seemed to be genuinely revered by the population, unlike other rulers more despotic in their approach to modernization. Somewhere in this picture must be my pant leg…

Although the last thing I needed then was a brass bed, I’m pretty sure this guy could have helped me, were I to have changed my mind:

And so we spent a mesmerizing week here, hitting the famous Covered Bazaar, checking out a few mosques, visiting the Princess Islands off the coast for a day of relative peace and quite after the constant din of the city and always sampling the food by pointing to what we wanted and trying to remember the names of the dishes.

In 1968 there was a fairly well-established route to the east and India that really began here in Istanbul. It was often known as the Hippy Trail, or the Hashish Trail. And I found out why soon enough. Heady times that those years were in the States and the Bay Area in particular, I had lead a fairly sheltered life. I think I had smoked dope maybe twice at home (boy, I never knew creamed corn right out of the can could taste so good!) But one day here, and Nelson, a more veteran toker, ran into some French hippies at our hotel and after inviting them to drop over to our room, bought a stick of hash, about the size of a stick of chewing gum. He and they partook of it then and there, commenting on the high quality, but I abstained for the time being and went out to explore some more. That evening, I joined in and took some preliminary lessons in holding onto a chillum, a short tube like implement with one end flared, carved from marble. A mix of hash and tobacco went into the wide end and a wet rag wrapped around the other, where one inhaled. Carefully. The smoke was harsh. I took a couple of draws, not really enjoying the burning throat it gave me, until all of a sudden I just fell over backwards on the bed. Visions of all sorts passed through my head, but every figure that I saw seemed constructed from multi-colored neon lights. I remember one of the French guys looking at me and asking Nelson, “Is he ok?” Nelson leaned over and peered into my dazed face…”Yes, he’s ok…” And so I was. Oh, yes…


Random iPhone Hipstamatic Self-Portrait

"Things are more like they are now than they ever were before."
-Dwight D. Eisenhower

October 2021
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