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2018 Grateful 10

Four weeks in Thailand taught me a lot about myself and how I view the world. I’ve always known that I’m impatient, that I don’t suffer fools lightly, that I have a sometimes irrational fear of getting lost. (But as the inimitable EK has pointed out to me on more than one occasion, I’m never lost if I know what country I’m in.) Thinking myself open to all religions, I was surprised at how out-of-place I felt on the predominantly Muslim island of Koh Yao Noi. I wasn’t expecting anyone but Buddhists, given that the country is predominantly Buddhist, and perhaps had I done my research, I’d have been better prepared, mentally prepared, but I was caught on the hop for the complete reversal in statistics: 96% Muslim.

I found myself wondering if I was dressed appropriately. Tank tops and vests were out but could I show my shoulders if wearing a knee-length dress? How long did my shorts have to be? Should I cover my head? I didn’t want to offend. I was very much aware that when in Rome … Buying booze in the village and being handed it in a black plastic bag accompanied by a frown of disapproval had me feeling like an errant teen trying to pull a fast one. I felt a strange unease at hearing the call to prayer as I lay on the beach, no doubt scantily clad by someone’s yardstick. That other tourists had no problem walking around in shorts and vests made no odds. I wasn’t feeling awkward for them – just for me. I missed the Buddhists and their temples. Those I felt almost at home in. Not here. And yet it was nothing anyone did or said. They couldn’t have been nicer. The smiles, though timid, were real. The welcome, while not effusive, was there. I wondered if I’d become conditioned to the anti-Muslim rhetoric in Europe and had absorbed some of the irrational fear it aims to induce.  I had a major rethink on my hands.

A few days in Doha on the way back added to my mental angst. But for that, I was prepared. I knew I was entering a Muslim country and had rejigged by thought patterns accordingly. I wasn’t walking around in shorts or sunbathing on a beach. I was covered. I had a handle on it. I was struck by the numbers – 88% of the 2.6 million inhabitants are expats. Foreign. There are twice as many Indians as there are Qatari, with a fair representation from Nepal, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Syria and more. Fascinating. Such diversity. And yet the diversity wasn’t as obvious as I’d have expected, lost as it is in the religion. The majority are Muslim.

The Muslims I know are moderate in their religious practice, a lot like the pick-and-mix Catholic I am. And the Koran, like the Bible, is open to selective reading. [I came across this fascinating article in the Telegraph What the Koran really says about women.] Yet I’d never choose to live in a country whose societal rules and norms differed vastly from what I am used to. Azerbaijan and I didn’t part friends. But India and I have a lovely relationship. The outward trappings of the Muslim world are difficult for me to understand, to get to grips with. Would I want to feel this level of discomfort in my own country? No. Do I want to wake up one morning and find my church bells drowned out by calls to prayer? No. (I wonder, though, what that would sound like and if they could be scheduled at different times?) Do I want to find myself in a minority? No. Does that make me anti-migrant? Does it make me racist? Does it make me intolerant? I have a pain in my head trying to figure it all out.

The Dalai Lama was accused of bigotry when he suggested that refugees return to their home countries to help rebuild them and leave Europe for Europeans. It surprised me when I heard what he’d said, particularly as he himself is a refugee. Is that what this is about? The difference between migrant and refugee? The former someone who chooses to resettle to another country in search of a better life, the latter someone who has been forced to flee their home country because of armed conflict or persecution. I understand the Dalai Lama’s comments to mean that refugee status is temporary, until the situation at home is resolved and people can return safely. Migrant status seems more permanent. I’m an economic migrant, I should know.

As a new wave of refugees set forth on a long journey towards a better life, I’m here examining my conscience and giving serious thought to what’s going on in South Korea on the island of Jeju where Yemeni refugees are getting a less than hospitable welcome from conservative Christian groups. Yes. Those who by virtue of their faith should be welcoming are crying Go home. There’s no room at the inn.

I read the NYT and watched a short video following one woman heading from Honduras to what she hopes will be a better life in the USA. Another from Channel 4 following the caravan currently walking through Mexico. The debate about asylum seekers and economic migrants rages and the media are playing to the gallery. Could there be would-be terrorists in these groups? Certainly. Just as there could have been on the plane from Bangkok or Doha or anywhere. But is it really terrorists or migrants or refugees or Muslims or conservative Christians (or….) that we are afraid of? Or is it simply the uncertainty of the times in which we’re living? Would we prefer to switch back to our pre-globalisation days where few people travelled abroad and letters took weeks to arrive? What is that we’re really afraid of?

This week, I’m grateful that travel makes me question what I take for granted. That it forces me to examine not only what I think but why I think it. And that both, in turn, give me a more balanced take on the world.

 

 

 

 

 

Smile and say ‘Charminar’

I’m not a fan of having my photo taken. I will avoid it when possible and while lately it hasn’t been as arduous as in the past, I’d still prefer not to be captured digitally or on celluloid or in any way at all.

I was in Hyderabad – a city that ranks No. 2 in places in the world to visit, if you believe the billboard in the arrivals hall at the airport. Am not sure about No. 2, but it has certainly made it to the top of my list of favourite cities in India. Yes, it’s a short list, I know, but it did bump Chennai from the No. 1 spot.

IMG_1707 (800x600)The city, in particularly the Old City, is predominantly Muslim and seeing so many women blacked out took a little getting used to. My ignorance of world demographics reared its head: for me India was Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, with a little Baha’i thrown in for good measure. Islam just didn’t figure. I need to go back to school.  

IMG_1711 (600x800)Anyway, at its heart is the Charminar (Four Pillars), built at the close of the sixteenth century by Quli Qutb Shah when he moved the state capital to Hyderabad. Its four, 4-storey minarets are nearly 50 m high. Had I done my homework, the whole Islam thing mightn’t have come as such a surprise as the four minarets are said to represent the first four Khalifas of Islam.

After I’d figured out how to get in (special entrance and special price (about €1.40 or $1.50) for foreigners, of which I was the only one), I was just aimlessly wandering around the ground floor. A guide approached me and tried to sell his services. He started to barter down his price to the point where it was nearly nothing, but I still wasn’t buying. I knew I couldn’t absorb any more facts. So I asked him how his tour would change my life for the better… we had quite the exchange. All the while, a group of 5 (2 women, 2 girls, and a young boy) were looking on, giggling away. I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I eventually freed myself of yer man and started to take some photos. The older of the crew came over and said something in rapid-fire Indian English. I caught the word ‘photo’ and assumed she was offering to take a photo of me, an offer I quickly declined.  But then it became clear – she wanted a photo with me!

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The rest of the crew surrounded me and dragged my arms around them. We all smiled and chatted as I was shot to death. All lovely, if somewhat bemusing.

I noticed a couple of men hovering and thought – no, no more guides. But they, too, wanted me to pose for a photo. This time with their mother and their grandmother, the latter a tiny woman whom I dwarfed even more. I was shot some more. It was like my own public photo shoot.  I saw a queue of sorts forming and mild panic set in. Krishna (my driver) had told me I had 30 minutes and I still hadn’t started climbing the 149 steps to the top.

Thankfully, he had felt a little concerned about letting me off on my own and had parked the car and come to find me. My knight in a white Toyota. My 7.5 minutes of fame were explained. It wasn’t because I looked like anyone famous, it was because people in the city are fascinated with foreigners. A first for me.

IMG_1701 (800x600)IMG_1705 (800x600)But back to the Minar. There’s supposed to be an underground tunnel that links Charminar to Golconda Fort: an escape route for the royal family should they be in need of one. I don’t think anyone’s ever found it, though. To get to the top, I climbed the 149 steps, steps that are about twice as deep as a usual set of stairs. Quite the workout. And very, very narrow. It would play havoc with your claustrophobia.

At the very very top, apparently, there is a mosque, with its 45 prayer alcoves and a great open floor in the middle. And had I not decided to do without a guide, I might have realised this. I didn’t. Anyway, I didn’t even try to go in because I didn’t know it was there, but I didn’t see anyone else climbing any higher either. As close to the top as I could get was a fabulous space, with  alcoves, and an amazing ornate ceiling. Stunning. And built hundreds of years ago. Mind boggling.

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IMG_1690 (800x600)IMG_1706 (800x588)The views out over the city are spectacular. The fruit markets, Laad Bazaar, the pearl market, a hive of activity. I felt a little like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Back on the ground, Krishna was a little taken aback at how nonchalantly I walked through the traffic, even stopping in the middle of the street to take a photo. But I’d had training. Many years ago, on my first visit to Bangalore, a local colleague, Lakshminarayana, had made me cross Mahatma Gandhi Street 11 times. It took me that long to get used to the traffic and the chaos and the madness and to realise that although it might seem random, everyone knows what they’re doing. 

IMG_1692 (800x600)I felt right at home in Hyderabad, even though I was turned away from the massive Mosque next door, Mecca Masjid (the oldest in the city). [Sixteen people were killed when it was bombed back in 2007.] I was refused entry because I was not in traditional Indian dress. Their loss, I said, knowing that my photo would soon pass though the hands of hundreds of people as my new friends took their token foreigner home.

charminarI will have to go back though, because I didn’t get to see the Charminar at night, in all its glory. And that’s something I’d like very much to see for myself. With that in mind, I have sowed the seed of a possible flat swop with an Indian colleague who spent time in Budapest. And you just never know what might come of it. I could spend time in Hyderabad. A lot of time.

 

A fish out of water

I’ve never been more aware of the fact that I am partial to a glass of wine or two than when I was in Istanbul. Unlike Budapest or Dublin or other places I’ve lived, it’s not a given that every restaurant will serve alcohol. And having to ask before I sat down, while not quite making me feel awkward, certainly drove home the fact that for me, dining and wining are almost intricately interlinked.

That’s not to say that I have wine with every meal or drink every time I’m out – I don’t. But I am quite partial to a glass of vino.

IMG_4409 (800x600) IMG_4410 (800x600)Walking underneath  Galata Bridge was high on my list of things to do while I was in the city – it was a short list as I’d done very little to prepare myself other than to email a friend who had lived there and ask for advice on what not to miss. The view at night from the bridge is stunning. With construction on this edition ending in 1994 (the first version of this bridge having opened in 1845), it’s close to 500 metres in length, spans the Golden Horn, and has featured in tales of the city since the nineteenth century. Underneath, rows of fish restaurants and cafés compete for business as if their lives depend on it (and perhaps they do). Touts lure tourists in with all sorts of banter, not too dissimilar to what you’d get on the markets in London’s East End, except with an accent and the inevitable first question: Where are you from? There’s not much to choose from menu-wise and the prices are pretty standard so you’re left (as I was) to count how many locals are eating where and going for that one.

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IMG_4411 (600x800)Up above, lines of fishermen fish for mackerel (or at least I think that’s what was coming out of the water, but I wouldn’t swear to it). Be it fact or fancy, it definitely gives the illusion that everything served in the restaurants below hasn’t been too long out of the water.

Reviewers on Trip Advisor seem to have missed the point of it all. They warn to stay away, using loaded terms like tourist trap, cons, rip-offs, etc. Of course it’s a tourist trap – and yes, you can eat for less elsewhere in the city, but if you’re eating elsewhere, you’re not eating under Galata Bridge. The mind boggles. As for the bantering … that’s all part and parcel of the experience. Just indulge them and enjoy. I challenge you to find better entertainment for the same price anywhere else in the city.

IMG_4430 (800x600)IMG_4514 (800x584)From the bridge there are great views of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) which was finished in the 1600s. This gives some indication of Istanbul timescales. Way back in 1591, the residents (mainly Jewish) were relocated to make way for the mosque. (Resettling is not a recent thing, then.) I was reminded of an Irish priest friend of mine who lives in Brussels. He was moaning one day about the notion that because he’s a priest, everyone feels he’s fascinated by churches and so visits to new cities end up as an ABC tour – another bloody church. I’d been in the Blue Mosque already and was suitably impressed so when I went inside the Yeni Cami, I was expecting something different. But to the naked untrained eye, it’s pretty much the same, albeit it on a slightly smaller scale. IMG_4499 (800x600)IMG_4509 (800x600)IMG_4494 (600x800)The tiled ceilings are impressive as are the carpets. The vast expanse of pew-less space takes a little getting used to for a Catholic girl used to seeing the congregation in straight rows alternately sitting, kneeling. and standing.

Rightly or wrongly, the urge to see any more mosques left me. Churches vary according to religion and style – some are more ornate than others, some are simple to the point of paucity. But each has its own character. Am open to correction; if there are mosques that differ, please tell me.

Islam is a religion I’d like to know more about. Its rituals are fascinating. I was particularly taken with the ablutions, where hands up to the wrists are washed three times; the mouth is rinsed three times; the nostrils are cleansed three times; the whole face is washed three times with both hands, from forehead to chin and ear to ear; both arms up to the elbows are washed three times; the whole head is wiped once with a wet hand; the inner ears are wiped with forefingers, the outer sides with thumbs; and finally both feet are washed three times up to the ankles, beginning with the right foot. And this is only a partial ablution. As I said, fascinating.