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The Geopolitically Pivotal Border Town of Palomas, Mexico

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Driving south from Albuquerque on I-25 is a surprisingly relaxing experience; unlike in Texas or Florida one can drive with the window down without breaking into an uncontrollable sweat. The desert landscape has a calming effect as I keep to the 75 mile-per-hour speed limit, blaring the country music (as always). In my mind, I laugh about the ridiculousness of driving four and a half hours to Puerto Palomas, Mexico. After all, it is a town that will likely be completely as advertised; it is a gritty, dusty, border town, one that a shoddily done Chinese documentary warns is becoming a “ghost town”. Still, due to my love for pivotal geopolitical regions, I know that I have to see it for myself.

 

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Southbound I-25. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Staring out into the stark desert landscape while keeping a rented Nissan between the lines I realize that this is a good chance for me to clear my head after taking care of my father for the last month following his heart surgery. I liken this drive to one I took six years ago from Austin Texas to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, after feeling the need to get away from it all for different reasons. For generations, Mexico has provided an escape from reality for Americans and today I am no different than Jack Kerouac. This famous “escape from reality” has been embraced by country music stars who often sing about Mexico’s border towns in terms of “escape from reality” (Kenny Chesney’s Beer in Mexico and Charlie Robison’s New Year’s Day are two good examples of this phenomenon).

Even if heart surgery and aging parents are the reality, I reason that my journey might also be an escape from banality itself. Albuquerque, New Mexico is—like all the towns I’ve lived in in the United States (Providence, RI; Boulder, CO; Austin, TX; or Gainesville, FL)—full of the familiar sites of extreme consumption that all Americans know: the one street lined with a Target, a Wal-Mart, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and maybe a Home Depot or a Wendy’s thrown in for good measure. In the end, however, it makes the outskirts of many American cities indistinguishable from one another. While this offers a sense of security for many—which I understand—it is also extremely boring (to me at least). Perhaps this is why I have always sought out the oddest of destinations in my life, from Tashkent to Tangier . . . and now Palomas.

Of course, escaping banality (or reality) comes with a price: the sense of “danger”, whatever it may mean. The United States Department of State “warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain parts of Mexico due to the activities of criminal organizations in those areas,” specifically:

 

Chihuahua (includes Ciudad Juarez, the city of Chihuahua, Ojinaga, Palomas, Nuevo Casas Grandes and Copper Canyon): Criminal activity and violence remains an issue throughout the state of Chihuahua and its major cities. Travel between cities only on major highways and only during daylight hours.

 

On 7 July 2017, the U.S. consulate in Juarez, Mexico, said “There is a likelihood of additional violence among drug cartels in the areas of Palomas, Janos, and Nuevo Casas Grandes. Information indicates this uptick in violence is likely to continue through the near future.” Interestingly, the department of state has a similar warning for my other country, Turkey: “Carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey at this time, and avoid travel to southeast Turkey due to the persistent threat of terrorism”. Of course, to me this sounds comical. Yet, this kind of fear is a reality for many in the United States. I recall my dentist, as well of one of my father’s nurses in the hospital, inquire as to whether or not I was afraid to travel to Turkey to do research for my PhD because “it is so bad over there”. This kind of detachment from the world—from “reality”—is harmful to Americans (something I have written about in the past), and thinking about the similarities between Palomas and Turkey (in the eyes of the U.S. Department of State) makes me chuckle as I drive past the exit for Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. It is a fitting name; if the warnings of danger are the “truth”, what will the consequences be?

 

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Truth…Or Consequences? Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

These are my thoughts as I exit off I-25 to Hatch, New Mexico, home of New Mexico’s famous green chiles, before continuing on to Deming and, ultimately, the border. After crossing under the I-10 underpass and passing through Deming I realize that I am the only car heading south on two-lane U.S. route 11 to Columbus, NM. The vast amount of emptiness is shocking and I wonder how people can live in the glorified no man’s land that follows the length of the U.S./Mexico border.

 

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Its a Half Mile to Mexico Amidst the Emptiness. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

As I near the border I head into a small parking lot that (apparently) used to serve a duty free shop; it looks all but abandoned now. Outside sits a golf cart adorned with an American flag, waiting to carry travelers across the border. The clientele waiting for the ride says a lot about the broken healthcare situation in the United States, since one of Palomas’ main draws is the availability of cheap prescription drugs and cheap dental care. Judging by the enduring lure of Palomas, Obamacare has not been as successful as its proponents may claim; that American citizens should seek dental care in another country—to combat the rising insurance costs in the United States—is unfortunate to say the least.

 

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Derelict Duty Free. Image Courtesy Of The Author.

 

I cross the border into Mexico with little fanfare, no one seems interested in me as I emerge onto what is…a dusty main street. Somehow, I am not surprised. Palomas is basically a single street headed south, the side streets branching out to the left and right give way to sandy desert after a couple blocks, constrained by the border fence (which is not quite a wall). Crossing the border the first thing travelers see is the Pink Store, an emporium of hand-made Mexican souvenirs that also doubles as a cross-border cultural exchange according to the Albuquerque Journal. Unfortunately, due to border violence from 2009-2011, most of the other stores in Palomas seem to have fallen on hard times.

 

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The Borderline (Top); The Pink Store (Middle); A Dusty Border Town (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

I walk down the dusty main drag for a few blocks, past pharmacies and discount dental offices, before returning toward the border in order to exchange twenty dollars for Mexican Pesos. Local money in hand, I go to indulge in the kind of cultural exchange I came for: Mexican food. I head down the first side street headed west, parallel to the border fence, and find a small taco stand. I order off the chalkboard menu in my rudimentary Spanish—learned in West San Antonio—which fails miserably. Luckily a patron asks me, in English, what I would like and kindly translates for me. Apparently they have run out of barbacoa, so I choose a bean and cheese taco instead. As I wait I learn that the lady who translated my order lives in both Columbus and Palomas; though she is clearly Mexican the blonde blue eyed little girl with her looks like what many would call “American”. It is an example of the population mix that makes border areas so fascinating.

 

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Pharmacies and Decaying Buildings Define Palomas, as Well as Some Interesting Street Art. Such Is the Melting Pot of the Border Town. Images Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Sitting down to enjoy my taco with a view of the border fence, I can’t help but think about the illegal immigration debate in the United States. On 5 June 2017 CNN reported that two thirds of the 700 children at Columbus elementary school—on the U.S. side of the fence—live in Palomas. They are children of illegal immigrants who were born in the U.S. before their parents got deported. Because of New Mexico’s state constitution which provides a free education for all U.S. citizens, these children are bussed across the border every day for school. Given the current political climate, outlets like The Atlantic are worried that the election of Donald Trump will change everything on the border.

 

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Tacos With a View Of the Border Fence. Image Courtesy of the Author.

 

To me, the entire debate about illegal immigration seems absurd to say the least. After all—as Palomas shows so clearly—nations have boundaries. I was not able to order my tacos in English because…Spanish is the language in Mexico; it is not the United States. And that is ok, because Mexico is its own sovereign nation. That nations should enforce their boundaries seems—to me at least—very normal. Some accuse people like me, who believe in borders, of being “cruel” or “lacking compassion”. To me such claims lack validity not only because the term “compassion” is relative, but also because in order to understand the situation on the border people must actually visit, interact with people, and be able to empathize. To opine on (southern) border politics from Boston or Seattle (both extremely liberal cities by U.S. standards) is useless, it is an exercise in building moral superiority at best. Two AP journalists who travelled the length of the U.S./Mexico border put it well:

 

What we’ve found, from the near-empty migrant shelters of Tamaulipas state in Mexico to the drug-running corridors of the Sonoran desert, is a region convulsed by uncertainty and angst, but rooted in a shared culture and history unlikely to be transformed by any politician, or any barrier man can construct.

 

Borderlands certainly do have a mind of their own and it is unlikely that a single politician can change that. One of my favorite trips to a border town was to Yuksekova in Hakkari province in southeast Turkey. As the biggest town in a province that borders both Iran and Iraq, Yuksekova represents the meeting point of Turkish, Persian, and Arab culture (not to mention the ethnic Kurdish majority in the province). It is the kind of real diversity that has survived the Ottoman and Safavid empires as well as the modern nation states of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq; it is not the kind of manufactured diversity that typifies urban areas in “Western” civilization. In a sense, Yuksekova—like so many borderlands—is a timeless place. Palomas is no different, but to understand it one must understand people. And that means empathy.

 

While the fact that students from Palomas (who are American citizens) are educated in schools across the border is celebrated by media outlets like CNN and The Atlantic, there are others who disagree, and for good reason. American taxpayers are paying money to educate students from Palomas while the families of the students from Palomas are . . . not paying anything (since they live in another country and are not required to pay taxes to the United States). Of course this is an absurd situation, and one that residents of towns on the U.S. side of the border have every right to be upset about. That this situation is absurd should not be a surprise to anyone, it just takes a little bit of empathy to see things from the perspective of taxpayers in towns like Columbus, NM and Deming, NM.

Similarly, the debate about illegal immigration often devolves into an inquest on the morality of those who dare oppose it. Personally, I believe that illegal immigration is unfair to everyone, not only to residents of the United States, but also to legal immigrants to the United States regardless of their country of origin since illegal immigrants essentially “cut in line”, so to speak. But these are not the only two groups who are treated unfairly by illegal immigration: the illegal immigrants themselves are also treated unfairly. A tragic news story from 24 July 2017 details how ten illegal immigrants savagely died in the back of a truck while being smuggled/trafficked into the United States. If laws regarding illegal immigration in the United States were more strict—and if sanctuary cities (like San Antonio) did not exist—it is possible that this needless tragedy could have been avoided. Had the likelihood of apprehension—and subsequent deportation—been apparent, it is possible that ten human lives would not have been needlessly lost in the back of a semi parked in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Sadly, the politicians are not asking the right questions and we are likely to see more needless deaths in the name of “diversity”; no-one can try to empathize with those in the truck in order to see why encouraging illegal immigration is far from the moral high ground.

After finishing my up my taco I pay and the lady says, with a voice of resignation, “its cheap here”. I can’t help but feel for her and this broken community. I ask her about sites to see in Palomas and she directs me to the museums on the American side, in Columbus, because Palomas’ museum has closed down, likely because of the violence. Disappointed, I ask for a restaurant recommendation and I am directed to an amazing place. Although some patrons laughed at my West San Antonio Spanish when I ordered, I can honestly say that the steak quesadilla was one of the best I’ve ever had—on either side of the border.

 

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If You Every Find Yourself In Palomas, Support Local Businesses and Find Yourself Eating Here. Image Courtesy Of the Author.

 

Walking away from my meal I am disappointed that border violence keeps travelers away from Palomas; without traveling people will never be able to empathize with the hard working individuals whose lives depend on a functioning border culture. Without traveling, these same people will be left dependent on the news of CNN and The Atlantic, who look to sell a story by capitalizing on the tears of a little girl without acknowledging how illegal immigration and drug violence hurt both the United States and Mexico: Mexico gets rid of its lower classes, sending them to the United States, while the United States benefits from an influx of cheap labor. Unfortunately, this kind of illegal immigration does nothing but harm to the honest working class people on both sides of the border; both Mexicans and Americans are hurt by the failure to enforce border security. As if to prove my point, the abandoned shell of an aborted casino appears in front of me, its construction abandoned due to instability. As I explore the rain starts to come down and the streets of this dusty border town begin to turn to mud. I decide to cross back to the United States, passing the Mile 0 sign.

 

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The Aborted Casino (Top); The Once Dusty Streets Turn Muddy (Middle); Mile 0 and Speed Limit 5(!) (Bottom). Images Courtesy Of The Author.

 

Inside the Customs and Border Patrol building I am the only traveler subject to interrogation.

“Where are you going?”

“Albuquerque, New Mexico.”

“Where did you come from?”

“Rhode Island.”

“That’s a long way…why did you come here?”

“Pure…curiosity.”

“Curiosity? What’s in that bag? Did you purchase any drugs, alcohol, or tobacco?”

“No sir…its just some souvenirs from the Pink Store.”

The customs official has heard it all before and he waves me through. As I amble to the parking lot I take one last look at the border fence. After this short interrogation at the border, it surprises me that the idea of a “wall” should be so strange to people. Then again, I realize that most who opine on the subject—and who do not believe in borders—have likely never set foot in a gritty border town.

 

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Welcome Back…and a Rainbow. Because…why not? Images Courtesy Of the Author.
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Extreme Capitalism Comes Home

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They say that you can’t go home again. They say it as if the concept that is “home” disappears the moment you cross that county line (or state line or city line). Before the last few days, I never believed this could be true. Home is in your heart right? It is a place where emotions are entwined with memories and experiences connected to space…right? In short, things that cannot be fabricated or replaced; these are things that cannot be replicated. The concept of “Home” is made up of moments—taken out of time—that (partially) define who we, as human beings, are. Right? Well…unfortunately, today I learned that this isn’t always the case. In fact, “Home” can be stripped away, whisked out from under you like the tablecloth on a cartoon’s table. Unfortunately—unlike as is the case in the cartoon—the items on the table (of your life) do not just fall into place just as they were before. In fact…everything is replaced in a disjointed way. Sure the items are still there, they just aren’t there in the same way.

Like I did a few years ago, when I took a walking tour of Istanbul, I decided to take a walking tour of the seaside village in which I spent the summers of my childhood. Since I experienced many pivotal moments in my life in this village, the place has a special meaning for me. Sadly—through the eyes of a grown man—the place has, inevitably, changed. Not, I may add, for the better.

On my Sunday walk I realize that my first route is blocked. A new construction site has, somehow, been built over the road. As if building houses (valued at one million US Dollars each) over the land that—as a child—I had picked figs in necessitates building over a road (which was, I may add, resurfaced just three years ago). But apparently it does; it is always more profitable to destroy and rebuild, after all. As someone who has never understood business—the concept of selling things at a profit (or taking advantage of people) is foreign to me—I cannot understand the changes that surround my childhood home. So I walk on, through the middle of a construction site. The workers stare at me with strained eyes, their neon yellow construction vests almost blinding in the sunshine of an early summer day, in stark contrast to their dark sun-tanned faces. Their eyes tell a story: “I was sent here to build houses that I will never, ever, have the chance to live in.” I fill in the rest of the story: They came here from towns and villages in Eastern Turkey that are now under attack, part of the struggle between the Turkish state and Kurdish minority that has been ongoing since the founding of the republic (for more on this, readers can access this—somewhat hyperbolic—piece from the New York Times). But there is money to be made, and I am in no place to tell people that they should not feed their families, even if it feeds an extreme brand of capitalism that just cannot support itself for much longer.

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I continue my walk thinking about how the US dollar is now three times the value of the Turkish Lira; just a few years ago it was fluctuating between a (comparatively) healthy 1.5-1.7. How will people afford the housing? Credit? Mortgages? We…. all know how that turned out in the United States…and the Turkish economy can’t handle that type of shock, reeling as it is from the recent bombings and resulting loss in tourism revenue.

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Image Courtesy Of: http://www.xe.com/currencycharts/?from=USD&to=TRY&view=5Y

Once in the main village I pass by what used to be a small market; one where small rotisserie chickens were sold and where we—as wayward teenagers—would buy beers for long summer nights spent on the beach talking about the future. The space now belongs to a company selling construction materials. Soon, I realize why the man’s market couldn’t compete in the larger, capital “M”, Market. Five national chains have moved into the neighborhood, all within—at most—a fifteen-minute walk of the closed market. It is basic economics—the national chain can sell at a lower price than the local corner store. It is sad. But it is also true, when the world is all about the bottom line.

I walk the familiar old streets out to the marina, where the white yachts of the rich are docked, floating idly in the blue expanse. One of the proprietors of a fish restaurant solicits a friend’s attention but I ignore him. I don’t have much of an appetite after what I’ve seen. And what I see next doesn’t make me feel any better.

On the return I come to the crest of a hill overlooking the new construction and I remember, at the end of the summer two years ago, watching bulldozers uproot the forest I had walked through as a child. Now, only two trees remain and it feels like a bad joke. The asphalt is covered in mud from an earlier shower and I see that even the crystal clear sea of my childhood is gone. The mud from the construction site is running off into the water; it is not a place I would like to swim and I wonder if the soon-to-be owners of these houses would agree. Pay one million dollars and not have roads or a beach? Not a good return on an investment but…who am I to say that? I’m just a guy that writes.

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Currently:

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Two Years Ago, with Half the Forest Already Uprooted:

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I finish my walk and head home, ready to do some more reading, but not before facing the visual assault of a brand new four story housing development being built behind my home. An ancient stone wall—built rock by rock by the hands of the farmer whose horses I used to feed carnations to as a child—has been demolished to make way for a concrete wall the color I would call “New England Winter Sky”. Who gave them the right to build a high rise in the middle of a small village? Well…the government did, of course. Without the consent of the state, nothing is possible in the modern world. And if all the state wants is to line its pockets then…anything goes. Its appalling and disgusting and it makes me want to know why greed exists in the world, yet I know the farmer—so many long years ago, had the same thoughts I have now when his land was encircled by development. May he rest in peace. I decide that, instead of reading, I’ll head down to the beach with a cold beer and watch the sunset. After all, the new development—despite its four stories—wont be able to bask in the sunset light like I can.

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The next day a friend and I come upon a small kitten in the village. It seems to have lost its mother and—certainly—does not know what to do now that it is all alone in the world. We play with it and feed it, watching it explore nature. The joy of rolling in the grass, the pain of a rose bush’s thorns; we quickly learn the pleasures and pains of life. I can’t help but wonder what it will do when all of the nature is swallowed up by human greed. Later, that same friend sends me a news story as I’m sitting at home: six people have been wounded and two killed in an assault at a night club in town after a disagreement between construction workers working on yet another new commercial development and employees of the club. I sigh and look out the window, thinking of the kitten. I wonder how it is doing. I think I might buy some cat food tomorrow morning. After all, we all need a little help in the world as we stomach the loss of our innocence.

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Author’s Note: The name of the place in question has been purposefully left out since this type of development can—and does—happen anywhere in the world, and indeed in any context. Industrial Football, for instance, is the manifestation of this phenomenon in sports as stadiums slowly disappear. Thank you for reading.

What to do in Atlanta? My Top Three Attractions in Atlanta

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I recently took a short trip to Atlanta, Georgia and—since I enjoy travel—I have decided to provide you with the three attractions I found most interesting in the United States’ ninth-largest metropolitan area. The order is in the order that I visited in; it is not an order of preference. Interestingly, most of the development in Atlanta started as a result of the 1996 Olympic games, one rare instance where hosting a major international sporting event actually had a positive effect on the city (what with the current traffic problems, however, I am not sure many locals would agree).

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  1. The Beginning: The World of Coca-Cola

Admission: 16 US Dollars (Plus Tax)

Time Spent: 30-60 minutes

 Opened in 2007 in its location near the Centennial Olympic Park (a continuation of the original museum, which opened in 1990), the World of Coca-Cola is admittedly an odd attraction. The first question I am asked, upon entering, is “what will you have to drink?” I resist the urge to ask for a Pepsi and go for a Coca-Cola Classic, served in an aluminum bottle. I am immediately struck by the almost cultish-aspect of the tour guides. They seem a little bit too upbeat. Indeed, when our group doesn’t give an enthusiastic enough cheer to one of our guide’s questions he notes that “we need to drink more Coca-Cola”. I am barely even able to stomach one bottle and shudder at the thought. After being lectured about Coca-Cola for fifteen minutes in a room filled wall to wall with Coca-Cola memorabilia (“the loft”), we are then ushered into a movie theater. Here are told not to take any video recordings and instead let Coca-Cola work its advertising magic on us before we are released to explore the rest of the museum alone.

The film’s effect is, I will learn later, similar to drinking too much Coca-Cola. That is to say, nauseating. It opens with a quote from the Italian writer and poet Cesare Pavese: “We do not remember days, we remember moments”. We are then subjected—as a group—to a six minute and something second advertisement for Coca-Cola set to Imagine Dragons’ On Top of the World. The group’s video—a spoof of the moon landing hoax—would have been more amusing than the images Coca-Cola provided for us; those of people “enjoying life”, for lack of a better term enjoying activities such as sky diving, surfing, and hanging out.

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For me the connection of emotion and memory to consumption is, honestly, disgusting. One would think that in order to relax and enjoy life all we need to do is…drink a Coke! The sentiments the video aims to elicit are as fake as the drink being advertised, but—somehow and some way—it works. Once released from the theater I see just how successful this connection truly is; the connection of the consumption of a soft drink to an individual’s emotional state (and even to the individual’s relationship with the nation-state, surprisingly).

The exhibits detailing the history of Coca-Cola tell the story not only of a soft drink, but of a country as well. We learn that every single U.S. state had a Coca-Cola bottling plant; effectively the country was united through the production—and consumption—of a soft drink. Later, in a second exhibit, we see the international reach of Coca-Cola; signs written in dozens of languages are intelligible only due to their color and font. The soft power of the United States (to borrow Joseph Nye’s term) was solidified through American cultural hegemony; within that framework Coca-Cola was but one tool—but a highly successful one at that. One exhibit even shows the subliminal effect of Coca-Cola advertisements on urban spaces: Post-cards of various 1950s cityscapes are shown and it is clear that, in every picture, the Coca-Cola sign is displayed prominently. My mind goes back to late 1980s Turkey when, as a child, we would spend one night at my late grandmother’s apartment in Izmir, Turkey, at the beginning of each summer. The giant Coca-Cola mural, painted on the façade of an apartment block nearby, was one of my first coherent memories of Turkey as a child. I decide to head to the part of the museum where the international is the focus: the tasting section.

I first heard of the tasting section in college. I expected Coca-Cola Classics from different countries to be on offer (since the drink tastes different depending on the country). Unfortunately, this was not the case. Instead, they offered a number of drinks produced by the Coca-Cola company internationally (such as Dasani water, Fanta, and Sprite). They claimed the number is more than 100 but I did not count as many. I then embarked on a whirlwind tour of the world (as shown by Coca-Cola), sampling sugared soft drinks dispensed from five taps representing Coke products sold on each continent. I filled my sampling cup while trying to dodge the children on sugar highs—I suppose the World of Coca-Cola is similar to Las Vegas for nine year olds: All the rules of “no soft drinks” and “no sodas” don’t apply for a few (literally) sweet hours. The result was—predictably—a headache and a stomach ache. But before the sugar kicked in and made me light in the head, I was able to make a few useful observations: Djibouti’s mint rendition of Coca-Cola is delicious (at least to me, the face of another guest after sampling this particular soda was contorted into an obvious show of revulsion). Uganda’s fruit punch-esque Fanta was decent—but not for those sensitive to sugar. Georgia (of Stalin, not peace, fame) had a decent Iced Tea, while I contemplated filling my aluminum bottle with Sweden’s Lingonberry soda to take home. The biggest loser was, undoubtedly, Italy’s Beverly. Its bitter taste—although pleasing to a fellow guest visiting from Connecticut, with whom I debated the soda’s medicinal taste—is almost like an inside joke. In fact the soda, originally to be a non-alcoholic aperitif, was discontinued by Coca-Cola in 2009 but is still holding its place at the World of Coca-Cola. Perhaps because so many people bash it.

Not For the Faint of Heart: Consuming Coca-Cola with Kids on Sugar Highs

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In the end I walked out of the World of Coca-Cola with a souvenir eight ounce bottle of Coca-Cola Classic, a light head, and a stomach ache. And—most likely—the resolve to never drink another Coca-Cola in my next thirty years. After all, it is never too late to make life resolutions.

  1. Interlude: Georgia Aquarium

Admission: 39.95 US Dollars (Plus Tax)

Time Spent: 30-60 minutes

The Atlanta Aquarium is apparently one of the the largest aquariums in the world. Since I arrive in the late afternoon, near closing time, upon entry I am told that I will not be able to see all of the exhibits and that I should focus on the “best exhibits”. Indeed, the “Ocean Voyager” is amazing and worth a visit, but I note that—honestly—you don’t need that much time to take in the Atlanta Aquarium’s exhibits. In fact, arriving late is a bonus at this attraction; I will gladly take less time for the chance to experience the exhibits free of crowds. Since I visited near closing time I had the exhibits virtually to myself: the school children were being herded out, while the families were readying themselves for dinner. It seemed that the only visitors left were those knowledgeable and older.

The peaceful setting of the aquarium is miles from the chaos of the World of Coca-Cola; the privilege of standing alone in a room facing a wall of glass looking into the water leaves me breathless. Fish—big and small, multicolored and monochromatic—live in perfect harmony, bringing order to the seeming chaos of the undersea world. For a moment it makes me reflect on humanity—we would eat one another alive, living in captivity (as we if we don’t already while living freely, but that is for a different discussion).

The first two exhibits, focusing on fish of all shapes and sizes, are the best. The more specific exhibits—containing, among other things, plankton, sea horses, star fish, and reptiles—are interesting but cannot approach the stunning experience of, literally, walking underneath the ocean. You don’t need a full day to see the Atlanta Aquarium, and I would recommend coming later in the day so as to get the exhibits more or less to yourself. Personally, I do not think I could have appreciated the majesty of the aquarium if I had been in a crowd. As is the case with many tourist sights in the world, it is sometimes best to arrive late in the day.

  1. The End: Georgia Guidestones

Admission: 0 US Dollars–Free

Time Spent: 10-20 Minutes

This is, perhaps, one of the more interesting road-side landmarks in the United States that I have visited, even after having visited the abandoned Pennsylvania Turnpike. The Guidestones are located in one of the few places left in the modern world that can be classified as “the middle of nowhere”. A little less than an hour from Athens and two hours from Atlanta, down the kind of two lane highway that reminds me of carefree summer days, the Guidestones are located on the side of Georgia Highway 77 in a rural area of Elberton County.

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Many outlets, including the BBC and Wired, have done a piece on the monument and each interprets them differently. The BBC’s piece offers a neutral overview:

“It was this gargantuan granite deposit [in the area] that attracted a well-dressed man under the pseudonym of RC Christian to Elberton in June 1979. He approached the Elberton Granite Finishing Corporation’s President Joe H Fendley Sr about the potential cost of building a monument of substantial size, explaining that he represented a small group of anonymous Americans foreign to Georgia who had been working on a 20-year-long project as a message for future generations. Fendley promptly put him in touch with his banker, Wyatt C Martin, who was soon chosen as the intermediary for the project. Both men were sworn to secrecy.

On 22 March 1980, the Georgia Guidestones – four giant rough-edged stones encircling a centre slab with a capstone balancing on top – weighing 119 tons, were revealed to a crowd of about 100 people. One crowd member, a local pastor, immediately professed his belief that the stones were built for cult and devil worship because of its similar appearance to Stonehenge. On each side of the capstone, engraved in four ancient languages, were the words: “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason.” And written in eight languages – English, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Classical Hebrew, Swahili, Hindi and Spanish – were cryptic instructions for rebuilding society post Doomsday.”

A PDF of a book written by the Elberton Granite Finishing Corporation offers the creators’ point of view, while Wired’s piece offers very useful insight into the days while the monument was being created, calling it an “American Stonehenge”. Having been to the “real” Stonehenge I can’t see much of a similarity—the video surveillance itself is off-putting—and the message written on the stones is, indeed, eerie.

On each of the four slabs—reaching almost twenty feet in height—is a message consisting of ten short statements written in the aforementioned eight world languages (Wired’s diagram is below, courtesy of http://www.wired.com/2009/04/ff-guidestones/) :

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  1. Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
  2. Guide reproduction wisely – improving fitness and diversity.
  3. Unite humanity with a living new language.
  4. Rule passion – faith – tradition – and all things with tempered reason.
  5. Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
  6. Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
  7. Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
  8. Balance personal rights with social duties.
  9. Prize truth – beauty – love – seeking harmony with the infinite.
  10. Be not a cancer on the Earth – Leave room for nature – Leave room for nature.

 

Some view this as a message for rebuilding human society in a post-apocalyptic world; others view this as something much more sinister—the ten commandments of the antichrist. There is undeniably something sinister to the site due to its perfectly researched placement; it is a clock, calendar, and compass as well as a “guide” (see above). Others, such as this piece, see the guide stones as a message calling for a New World Order engineered by a secret society.

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Honestly, I have no opinion as to what these stones mean. The idea of a technocratic world order—uniting the world with “one world language” and “ruling passion and faith…with tempered reason”—sound eerily similar to the global capitalism we all witness where individualism is suppressed. After all, expressing opinions can be harmful to the “brand” in business—blandness is rewarded. Yet the idea of prizing “truth”, “beauty”, and “love” while “leaving room for nature” sound like classic humanist ideas that have been espoused in many cultures for years. The message is a strange amalgamation of fascism with liberalism; some of it useful and some of it dangerous; the Malthusian undertones in the first “commandment” are typically picked up on as the most frightening since the rising world population means diminishing wealth—and health—for everyone. Regardless of one’s views on the stones, they are certainly worth a visit. After seeing how the multi-national corporation Coca-Cola appropriates human emotion to sell an unhealthy drink—and after seeing how fish, both large and small, can live in perfect harmony while human beings clearly cannot—a visit to the Georgia Guidestones can certainly lead to a philosophical afternoon.

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Judge Not…Lest You Be Judged Yourself

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Place: Planet Earth

Time: 11:00 PM

I’m standing in a bar on a weeknight, it could be anywhere. I’m not alone, many people feel the need to break out of the monotony of their daily lives every now and then, if only for a few hours. I’m sipping on a whiskey and Ginger Ale, leaning against the wall as usual. Savoring each sip helps you take it slow. Kind of like life I suppose. I’m savoring so much, in fact, that I fail to notice the commotion going on to my left.

“Get out of here, stop injecting yourself into my situation! Youre such a b___!” A man is yelling at two women, directing his rage at one in particular. I just stand there, staring straight ahead. I examine the patterns on the wall. After all, this isn’t my fight. And it probably isn’t at least one of these women’s.

As the voices rise I gather that it is some sort of dispute over unfaithfulness—someone may or may not have cheated on the other. I don’t know the details, since I’m still staring straight ahead. I notice they eyes of everyone in the bar…staring back at me, past me, at the couple to my left. One man keeps making eyes at me, and all I can do is roll my eyes. Life is hard for everyone, who am I to pass judgment on someone else’s domestic dispute? It isn’t my dispute. And it isn’t anything I can fix. After all, if I could fix others’ relationships, I’d probably have my own, right? Or so my reasoning goes. And I continue with the Ginger Ale and whiskey, looking straight ahead without flinching. I hear a fist slam against the wall and the man in question walks past me, kicking the door open. He’s off into the night, his (now former, I suppose) girlfriend is still seated, smoking s cigarette. I move to the bar, for another. I hear the man who had been looking at me whisper to what I can only assume to be his date.

“I think he’s his friend.”

I give him a look.

“You know that guy?”

“Never seen him. In my life.” Even if I had…what’s it to him? I get my drink and go back to my wall and look out at the bar. The couples, when faced with this domestic disturbance, have redoubled their efforts to be loving to one another. The phones are out for selfies, the hugs are firmer and (one hopes) more meaningful. I guess its a useful social experiment: When faced with love gone wrong, people realize the value of love. Its an odd paradox of living according to others but what would one expect in a world where people measure their own lives by comparing them to others’ on Facebook?

Fifteen minutes later an elderly man stumbles in. Stocking cap with headphones, wearing a long trench coat to the middle of the shins which are covered by rainbow socks. He’s certainly disheveled, might even be a bum, but he’s got a twenty-dollar bill out and ready to drink. Just like everyone else who is…here…on a weeknight. I keep staring ahead but I notice all the eyes now turned on this new arrival. As he stumbles towards a seat across the bar people are whispering. An older man—they might even be the same age—takes out his phone and starts taking a video. I feel like he’s laughing at the man from a position of power; they are of similar ages yet—seemingly—in different positions in life. The stratification makes me sick, so I just keep looking straight ahead of me, trying not to notice the insulting behavior all around me.

The bartender takes a seat next to me and the man next to him asks about our newest visitor. I have to interrupt their conversation, if only for a minute.

“Y’all are sure getting a lot of amusement from sideshows tonight”, nodding at the girl who had been in a domestic dispute just minutes before.

“Yeah, I know that guy. He’s not drunk. He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. But people think he’s drunk. Like look at that guy, taking a video.”

He takes the words out of my mouth; the judgments people are levelling on one another at this point would shatter even the most optimistic person’s views on humanity and I let him know my feelings. No one has the right to pass judgment on others based on baseless preconceptions.

Five minutes later the video taker orders a drink from the same bartender as he laughs at the old man. “He has Parkinson’s disease. That’s why he walks like that. He isn’t drunk.” The video taker looks shocked…another ten minutes and he’s out the door, ashamed and unable to look anyone in the eye. Before I go, I thank the bartender.

“Nice job tonight. You did well.”

Motoring From Ocala to Daytona

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Taking inspiration from Jeff Klinkenberg, I researched a few routes on Motorcycleroads.com and settled on the Ocala National Forest. I couldn’t have known at the time that it would take me from Florida’s past to its present over the course of a little over one hundred miles of asphalt and painted yellow lines.

Sometimes in life it is therapeutic to drive somewhere where there is no phone service, where it is almost as if you don’t exist. The Ocala National Forest fits that description perfectly. Florida route 19 bisects the forest north/south and offered me a perfect opportunity to disappear, if only for a few hours. At the beginning of the route I couldn’t help but take a picture of a bear crossing sign. Its up there with some of the funnier highway signs I’ve seen, including the “Farts” warning in Norway and the classic falling rocks design on European highways. Walking back to the car the silence is complete. There are no noises, at this point not even any passing cars. Just trees and the two-lane highway, a straight line that (I wish) went on forever.

I spend a few hours exploring the dirt roads that dot the forest, avoiding the pick up trucks that seem to appear in the middle of the road at the top of every crest. I guess people get too used to being alone in the forest, and I understand it. It feels like driving on tightly packed snow and I have a little fun before reminding myself that if I screw up the car I will be providing lunch, I suppose, for the local bear population.

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Back on the pavement I see a sign for Ormond Beach, outside of Daytona. After the natural solitude of the forest the beach will offer a different experience in nature for me and I turn the car east to the coast. As I head to the coast I think of the father’s words in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, realizing that—eventually—the forest will swallow Florida route 19. It’s only…natural.

From driving on dirt roads I go to driving on the sand. I find it odd that one should even be allowed to drive on the beach, it is an assault on nature. But it doesn’t seem like anyone cares. Looking up and down the sand one sees that nature has already been assaulted in the name of money. Hotels line the beach for as long as the eye can see. I smile at the birds that seem oblivious to the encroachment of humanity encouraged by greed.

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Further down the coast past soviet style condominiums, in Daytona Beach, I decide to get myself a piece of art, a little bit of southern kitsch: the airbrushed hat. I order my design and ask the man where he is from. I know its somewhere I can relate to. “I am from planet Earth” he says, laughing. No doubt many people ask the same question daily. I am offended that he would think I want to insult him, but then again I know the depths of human ignorance that he may have faced.

“I know that much.”

“Palestine. I am from Palestine”. Indeed, somewhere I can relate to. As I wait for my “art” I step out onto the boardwalk, staring at the beach roller-coaster. I guess this is life on the beach in a culture I never got to experience: Beach culture in the American south. Staring out at the water I think of the absurdity of life: a Palestinian airbrush artist making hats for people who (most likely) would not be able to point his home out on a map. Its odd, but it is what America should be. Everyone comes from somewhere, and everyone does something. Luckily for me, this man does his job well. For me it is definitely more than a hat, it is a piece of art.

On the way home I come upon the Mecca of human encroachment on nature: Daytona International Speedway. The track looms over the road in all its grandeur, the epicenter of American motorsport. For a moment I wish I could take my Saab for a test drive but preparations for the Daytona 500 are taking place.

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Forty minutes later and I am again in the middle of the Ocala National Forest, stopped at a four-way intersection on Florida route 40, running east/west. The sky is streaked in purples and oranges, another day ends in a watercolor. The past 150 miles have taken me through the various ecologies—and road types—of Florida: From Swamp to Beach; from dirt road to sand. I don’t know of another state that can offer such contrasts in such short distances and that, in itself, makes it a good day. The light turns green and it’s time to go, I find myself wishing all crossroads in life were this simple to negotiate.

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But they’re not. And that is why “motoring”, in the Gatsby sense, is enjoyable. Moments after the intersection I crest a small hill to find myself looking squarely into a pair of headlights. I slam the breaks and flash my brights, the erring driver squeezes between an SUV and eighteen-wheeler. And that’s where the fact remains: When going for a drive your life is in your hands, literally. If someone crosses the double yellow on a two lane your only recourse is in your hands. Perhaps it is the proximity to death that makes adventure worthwhile. After all, what of the world—or life—would we learn on the couch?

 

Drive sound track:

George Strait: Run

Survivor: Eye Of the Tiger

One Direction: Perfect

Jerrod Niemann: Drink to That All Night

Cole Swindell: You Should Be Here

The Oak Ridge Boys: Leaving Louisiana In the Broad Daylight

 

 

Istanbul Excursions: A Visit to Eyüp–October 12 2014

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An eerie calm has descended over the stadium mid way through the first half, a calm unlike any I have experienced in a stadium before. The hardcore supporters in the stand to my left have, incredibly, silenced themselves. I can almost make out the voices of the players as they shout instructions to one another, the dull thud of the ball hitting a foot sounds louder than ever. That is, during the few moments that the Muezzin’s voice falls silent in between pauses for breath. The call to prayer emanating from the minaret facing the stadium dominates the proceedings as Eyüpspor face Halide Edip Adivar SK in a Turkish Third Division match at the Eyüp Stadium.

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Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised—Eyüp is one of Istanbul’s most conservative districts, and the fans have silenced themselves in deference to the afternoon prayer. The centrally located Eyüp Sultan Camii (Eyüp Sultan Mosque)—the first major mosque built in Istanbul after the Turkish conquest and constructed by the Sultan Mehmed II in 1458 in honor of the companion of the Prophet Mohammed, Abu Ayyub al-Ansari— dominates the center of the district and many facets of life here. Football is not exception.

But Turkey can still surprise in a contradictory way—it never fails to. Despite the pious nature of Eyüpspor’s supporters they don’t hesitate to break into song at halftime when, despite the 0-0 halftime score, they boisterously sing along to Hakan Peker’s Atesini Yolla as it plays on the PA system. The fact that the song was made famous by Beşiktaş’ Çarşı group (themselves from the opposite end of the political spectrum then most of Eyüp’s residents) seems to have not affected Eyüpspor’s faithful. I don’t blame them—it’s a catchy song after all (Hakan Peker’s original and Carsi’s versions are below).

Original:

Çarşı:

The irony of the chants coming from Eyüpspor’s stands doesn’t end there, however. They hold the tune of “Eyüp’e, rahat yok, Halide Edipe koymadan… (No rest for Eyüp until putting it to Halide Edip)” as the second half starts. While this may seem innocuous to the laymen, the fact that Halide Edip was one of Turkey’s foremost feminist writers—and supporters of Ataturk’s revolution in Turkey—the obvious sexual connotations of the chant make me laugh (and cringe) simultaneously. It doesn’t matter to me that Halide Edip Adivar’s name now graces a sports club, since I would like to think that the Eyüpspor fans would have shown a little more class. No such luck here though.

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Luckily for this article, my mind is taken off of the subject when Eyüpspor pick up their game in the last twenty minutes. It takes an injury to Tuncy Öndel—who has to be carted off to the hospital after a hit to the head—for Eyüpspor to score on a beautifully taken free kick in the 70th minute by Gencay Ertan. 1-0 to the home team and all the animosity following the foul is forgotten (the Eyüpspor faithful made it clear through their chants that a Katliam—carnage—would ensue if they were “messed” with”).

Minutes later, just as the ambulance is about to pull out of the stadium, a corner kick creates a goal mouth scramble and Eyüpspor make it 2-0 in the 73rd minute with Güray Kula poking it in. The supporters make it clear that they are confident as they start to hold their tune—Ya seve seve, ya sike sike, Eyüpspor Ikinci Lige (Either by loving or by fucking, Eyüpspor to the second division). The fans want a third goal and, with the visitors in disarray, it even seems likely. The fans take a break from their profanity laced chants in the 78th minute as the call of “Eyy ALLAH! Eyy ALLAH! Rises from the stands, the fans prostrating themselves en masse. I can honestly say its one of the strangest scenes I’ve witnessed in a stadium but, then again, I don’t come to Eyüp regularly.

Two minutes later they resort to more traditional chants:

Beraber Yürüdük bu Yollardan

Beraber Islandik Yağan Yağmurlarda

Şimdi Sıra Geldi Sampiyonluğa

Haydi Bastır Şanlı Eyüp Sultan

 

We walked these roads all together,

The rains that rained soaked us all together,

Now its time for the championship

Push on blessed Eyüp Sultan

Indeed the excitement of the fans continues to excite the players, as Eser Şen hits Eyüpspor’s third goal, and their second from a free kick, this time taken from just outside the box. It is 3-0 and the stadium is in raptures. Even I am taking pleasure in the goal show on display. And just when I think its over the home team does it again—A curved shot from the corner of the penalty area by Alperen Doğan meets its mark and, in the 89th minute, it is 4-0. The fans celebrate with a chant that is in vogue recently—Şehitler Ölmez Vatan Bölünmez (The Martyrs Will Never Die, The Nation Will Never be Divided)—I suppose the large Turkish flag in the stands has something to do with it but they are understandably enthused. 4 Eylül Beyeldiyespor have managed only a draw and Eyüpspor is now in sole position of first place in the Turkish Third Division Group 2.

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I figure that a suitable celebration will be wandering Eyüp’s back streets, but only after acquiring one of the team’s purple and yellow scarves. Scarf in hand (I chose not to wear it) I followed the crowds into Eyüp’s central square, dominated by the Mosque and courtyard. It was crowded with families out for Sunday strolls—most mothers wore clothing more befitting of Arabia while the fathers wore hard expressions as they tried to keep an eye on their children. The ones that weren’t running circles around the adults were busy munching on sesame seed-encrusted simit rings, the same size as their faces. Yes, this could indeed be Turkey’s future.

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But for now, I prefer to look into the past. Down a small side street to the left of the mosque is a narrow pathway that slants up hill through the cemetery. One of Istanbul’s oldest, it is a relic from a time that Eyüp was considered a suburb and provided a quiet resting place for the departed—now Eyüp is a part of the city and its urban sprawl.

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Still, the cemetery is as beautiful as it was on my first visit, a similar grey fall day eight years ago. Refreshingly, in a city where so much changes, here things seem to have stayed the same. I guess when a faith is involved the forces of change are slowed. Here the cats still weave their way between the gravestones and pine trees, hoping for a few scraps from the living. I don’t have anything for them and ignore the “meeeeows”, looking out at what has changed. Across the Golden Horn the fresh skyscrapers of “new Istanbul” are visible, in stark contrast to the gravestones marking the final resting places of those who lived—and died—in a very different Istanbul.

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I head higher and higher through the cemetery, up to the Pierre Loti café, named after the famous (Orientalist) French writer—it is said that he wrote his masterpiece Aziyade here among these same trees, looking out at the waters of the Golden Horn. Despite being off the tourist trail Pierre Loti is one of Istanbul’s must see sights, a world away from European Pera or the modern tourist center that Sultanahmet has become. This is old Stamboul, where the truths of Istanbul—and Turkish society at large—are on display for those intrepid enough to make the trip up the Golden Horn.

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Turkey is certainly a Muslim country. You see it in the souvenir stands selling the typical goods—tesbih, Muslim prayer beads, to those selling the absurd—bumper stickers that read “Damn Israel”.

Yes, if you spend enough time in Eyüp you will see one of Turkey’s best Third Division sides in action. More importantly, you will also get a good lesson in some of modern Turkey’s paradoxical realties—the plaques on the cemetery walls are just a small example.

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While the messages are sound they make me think of current events, when some ostensibly pious Turkish Muslims are supporting ISIS  by vandalizing the homes of Kurds—giving their faith a bad name in the process.

Istanbul Excursions: A Visit to Sariyer–October 8 2014

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I take bus 152 on the Hacıosman-Kısırkaya route and get off in the center of Sariyer; to me it is one of Istanbul’s most beautiful districts. The location is picturesque, on the northwestern shore of the Bosporus where it opens up into the Black Sea. I stand on the pier and look past the green hills where the grey waters flow into a grey horizon, it reminds me of the previous times that I have come to see matches here.

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The fans are generally a respectful bunch, and I have taken girlfriends to matches here before. It’s a relatively short trip from the center of Istanbul, and the delicious börek and pide restaurants make for some good pre-match meals. Here I even became friends with a couple of young girls three years ago, their headscarves might have made us different but it didn’t matter when the subject was football. Another time that arbitrary boundaries were bridged by sport. But that was three years ago, and every year the differences within Turkish society seem to become more and more pronounced.

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I wander the back streets, lined with historic wooden houses built in the traditional Ottoman style. Some are derelict while others have been restored as I search out a spot for a pre-match drink in the British style. I find my spot just off the main square, Meydan Pub. It looks admittedly dodgy, and the irony of the AKP and MHP offices opposite the entrance doesn’t escape me.

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As the waiter pours me a raki I attempt to justify my drinking at 3 in the afternoon by telling him I’m going to the match.

“What match?” he asks with obvious indifference.

“Sariyer-Nazilli Belediyespor.”

He just raises his eyebrows in a look of surprise as he slides the ice bucket over to me. Turkish 2nd division football doesn’t exactly elicit much passion in these parts.

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I soon see why—it’s a miracle that I don’t fall asleep during a first half that ends as it began: 0-0 with no real chances to speak of. I stretch my legs during the break, walking below the stands as the last fans are let in, all free of charge. They’re all young kids, just out of school—normal for a rare Wednesday afternoon fixture.

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“Does my hair look good? Wait, lets not go in yet. (Saçlarım düzgün mi? Bekle, daha girmeyelim)” She steals a look at the stands. “Lets wait a bit”. Two young girls share an exchange that I can’t help but chuckle at as I overhear it. If she was looking to impress a particular boy I would think the football stadium would be the last place to flirt. Her “Too cute for you” t-shirt only makes it a more ridiculous scene.

“Atilla! Atilla! What are you doing at a match, you’re a married man now?! (Atilla, Atilla! Ulan evlendin bahtlandın ne işin var maçta?!)” The two men embrace and I laugh at myself this time. All the small town lives that have converged at the Yusuf Ziya Öniş Stadium on a Wednesday afternoon make for some good people watching, there can be no denying that. If only the football was as amusing as the conversations.

I decide to dig into a köfte sandwich for my halftime snack, in memory of “Köfte” Hüseyin—a Sariyer fan who passed away in June at a young age from a heart attack. I look at the banner hanging behind the goal that he himself had written as I eat: OLACAKSA SENDEN BİR MENFAATİM BİR BAYRAK OLSUN O DA TABUTUMDA DURSUN (If There Will Be One Profit I Get From You May It Be a Flag That Can Lie On My Coffin). The meat and onions are good even if the bread is a level above rubber; I feel like my teeth are going to snap off as I take a bite but I don’t care. Let it be my one act of remembrance for a man I never knew but who shared the same passions as I do—may he rest in peace.

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The second half is a little more lively but it still seems unlikely that any goals will come. As the fans get restless they mouth a tongue in cheek chant—“This isn’t the cinema or theater, fans that don’t yell can fuck off! (Burası sinema tiyatro değil, bağırmayan taraftar siktirsin gitsin)”. I choose not to be offended and continue watching in silence. Two school age boys start fighting over a scarf in front of me before their “Abiler”—older “brothers”—put them in their place. “You little pricks, instead of fighting you bastards should be yelling! (Ulan ibneler, kavga edeceğinizi bağırin piçler!). In this way, the smaller teams are definitely a society unto themselves.

With three minutes left Sariyer get their chance but it goes just past the post—Sariyer are left to settle for their sixth draw in seven matches. We all know that this is hardly the stuff of a promotion contender at this early stage of the season as we file out into the grey afternoon under a light drizzle coming in from the north.

 

I have nowhere to go so I decide to head back to the pub. It is full this time with businessmen sipping beers in their work clothes; it is almost European in a sense. That is, until you raise your head to look at the TV. I follow the news reports. A curfew has been declared in six eastern provinces, including Diyarbakir, where a friend of mine has gone for the Bayram. Those old familiar battles between Kurds and Turks should have long gone out of style but ISIS have reignited them. Far from those bloody battles I sip my raki on the shores of the Bosphorus, watching it all unfold on Show TV. It doesn’t look good, and as I watch I recognize the city. I had been to a match there five years ago and I know those streets well.

All I can do now is hope that cooler heads prevail. As a writer for Hurriyet Daily news said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., “We must learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” Hopefully, all involved can take heed.

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