Tuesday, April 16, 2013


Once again I’m teetering on the brink of the known-to-me world. I’m in the airport in Toronto, waiting for my Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul. I’ll have an overnight and a morning and then will head back to the airport to catch a flight to Tbilisi. It all feels so exciting.

But I am out of touch. To most people these days who travel at all, Turkey and Georgia seem fairly ordinary, an extension of Europe. They skype and FB and tweet about being here or there, and none of it seems momentous or difficult.

After years of travels to Burma for my BURMA book, a place where there was no ATM machine or accessible-to-me cel phone to the outside world, and very limited internet access, I feel I’ve jumped into a new generation of travel. I’m not used to modernity in travel and feel like an old-fashioned person catapulted into a new travel generation. All this has happened in the last five or six years…

The above was written yesterday, in Toronto. Now I’m in the lounge in Istanbul airport, sipping a very good double espresso and waiting until it’s time to head to the gate for my flight to Tiflis, as Tbilisi is known in Turkish.

Yesterday’s arrival here was a short course in the international-hub nature of Istanbul, a real wow. This is the gateway to Central Asia and also has a foot, and more, firmly in Europe. It’s an enticing combo. But to go back to the arrivals, as a Canadian I needed to get a visa. There are 37 countries listed as needing a visa, including Norway, USA, Yemen…an eclectic list. But Sweden and France get a by, and so does Brazil. It cost me $60 and is a ninety day multiple entry visa, which will allow me to come back through here on May 1.

After the visa line came the passport control, divided into Turkish and “all other countries” lines, snaking through barriers. The line moved very quickly, at a continuous walking pace, and was a snapshot of the people that stream into this country these days. There was a whole batch of Turcomen women, in long dresses, all rich blues and wine-reds with small-flower patterns and embroidered borders. They had the gold and steel teeth of the ex-USSR, and headscarves that bared the beautiful bone structure of their faces as well as their ears, all with gold earrings. Then there were Russian speakers, the women in lipstick and tight trousers or elegant skirts with patterned stockings, the men tall and imposing. Among these were scattered Europeans, mostly older prosperous looking couples from Norway, France, Germany. And then of course there were a lot of people I could only guess at.

The passport control was quick and amiable, and then the rest was easy: a taxi to my small hotel, and I was done.

The rainy streets last night were full of hurrying people, stopping in to the green-grocer for green almonds (slightly furry little green ovals) or fresh fruit (so much on display) or tomatoes, or into the butcher for a cut of meat for the night. The woman who cleans the hotel I was at took me in hand and pointed out several small fish restaurants nearby as she was on her way home from work. I picked the liveliest looking one. Grilled sea bream was my choice of main. It came with half a lemon for squeezing on. And I ordered a salad. It was large, enormous and beautiful in a glass bowl and was not tossed but left for me to toss or taste as I wished. It had everything in it: parsley, basil, dill, and tomatoes, grated carrot, cabbage of two colours, and a little shredded lettuce, as well as slices of cucumber and carrot at the side. The server drizzled on olive oil and pomegranate syrup and then as I ate I squeezed on lemon juice and added a little salt.

I like eating alone in a new place. It gives time to reflect, and to digest - pardon the pun – all those first impressions, or at least some of them. I know I’ll forget this newness as I return here on more trips into the region. Certain things, from airport layout to how taxis work, become habitual and we cease to notice them. This first beginner’s mind time is precious.

And so today in the pouring rain I walked the few blocks to look at the Sea of Marmora, grey in the dim light, and yet still magical as an idea… I don’t want to lose the sense of magic that these places steeped in myth and history - yet very much alive and modern right now - evoke in me.

I guess my version of a traveller’s prayer is, “let me never take anything for granted, and may I always have a sense of wonder”.

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