Main Street: First notes from the big trip

Rich Wandschneider

We just returned from a wonderful three-week trip to Turkey. For Judy and me, it was the first return to the place where we met 35 years ago. For the other 10, it was a first step into this ancient world and modern country. For all of us, it was a true "Rotary Friendship Exchange" through which we met scores of hard working men and women dedicated to improving their communities, their country, and international understanding.

Note 1: To all of you who worried about our safety while in Turkey. Imagine yourself in a mixed-age mixed-gender group of twelve wandering the back streets of any American city in the middle of the night and feeling completely safe. We did that in Istanbul, a city of some fifteen million. Although anytime it was brought up - and we never initiated such conversations - Turks disagreed emphatically with George Bush and American policy in Iraq, no one expressed anything but friendship and hospitality towards us.

Note 2: American definitions of "old" are young. Being "from" a city or region of the country might mean that forefathers moved to Tarsus or Istanbul 200 years ago. In Tarsus, digging for a new underground parking garage turned up a 2,000-year-old Roman Road. Architects and engineers built walls, gates, theaters, churches and mosques 400 years ago, 1,000 years ago, and 2,500 years ago that are still beautiful, and sometimes still used. On our last night in Turkey, we visited a "hamam," a Turkish bathhouse, that was over 700 years old!

Note 3: Turkish Food. I'm not sure what the secret is, but it seems as though we were always eating but never stuffed. Yet obesity is flat out rare from small villages to big cities. The occasional McDonald's and Burger King pokes out from an old city street or beckons from a freeway gas station, but for now, the healthy Turkish diet of olives and olive oil, fresh fruits and vegetables, pilafs, lamb, chicken and veal cooked in simple sauces or on a skewer, cafe, chai, and sweet baklava and its relatives, is holding its own with global fast foods.

Note 4: The value of the dollar has dropped rapidly in the past year or two. A carpet that would have been $500 or 650 euros two years ago is now 500 euros or $650!

Note 5: Carpet dealers. There is a Turkish carpet dealer - or relative of same - at every corner on every bus in every airplane from Ankara to Portland. Imagine a couple of hundred Atiyeh Brothers stores (in Portland) in a few city blocks. And imagine the same in hundreds of towns and cities in Turkey. And imagine the connections in Portland and Seattle and Grand Forks, North Dakota......

Note 6: Turkey has undergone incredible transformations since Judy and I left in 1970. Agriculture is mechanized, with a change that reminds me of what must have happened in our country from 1940-1960. As in the US, there has been a mass migration to the cities due to mechanization, with additional millions moving with the troubles in eastern Turkey after the first Gulf War.

Tarsus, where we spent five days as guests of local Rotarians, was a town of about 33,000 when I was last there; it now has a population of 265,000. Ankara was less than 500,000; it's now three or four million. Istanbul was less than two million; it's now somewhere between 15 and 20 million.

The Mediterranean Coast, sprinkled with small fishing villages along mostly gravel and lane and a half asphalt roads 35 years ago, is now full of ten and 12 story block built apartment-condominium buildings. They are first and second homes for wealthy German, Belgian, Dutch and Turkish business and professional people, with a new scramble by brash, super wealthy Russian tourists, who, according to our hosts, toss money around like paper. Where there aren't big buildings competing for sea views, there are greenhouses - acres and acres of greenhouses that extend the normal nine or ten month growing period on the Med to year-around to feed the growing Turkish population and hungry Europe.

Note 7: Roads, buses and cars. There is fierce and free competition among dozens of bus companies, and plush Mercedes buses built in Turkey join a huge fleet of Turkish made cars - Fiats, Toyotas, Fords, Hyundais, Isusus and a few that I probably missed - on multi-lane roads between major cities and good roads connecting just about everything else. No smoking on the buses (although still ubiquitous everywhere else).

Note 8: Turkey is a secular republic. Colin Powell referred to Turkey as a "Moslem State" in a speech while we were in Turkey, and it set off a flurry of comments, especially from woman doctors and lawyers and business leaders, but also from primary school teachers and shopkeepers. "Don't you know that we are a secular republic? Our laws derive from European systems and have nothing to do with the Koran."

Note 9: Rotary International is an incredible organization. There are over 200 Rotary clubs in Turkey - maybe 300 - and each is working towards local community improvements and participating with the Ministry of Education in a national literacy program. "Local" projects that we saw or discussed ranged from a neo-natal unit in a small town hospital to a wheelchair factory that will employ disabled workers in our host city of Tarsus.

My quick guess is that Turkish Rotarians are on the whole wealthier than Wallowa County Rotarians, and their commitments to service include their checkbooks as well as their time and professional expertise.

Note 10: Oregon is a gorgeous place to come home to, especially in spring. The Columbia Gorge was magnificent in shades of green, and the snow-capped Wallowas on a sunny spring Sunday are hard to beat.

Note 11: Life is precious and unpredictable. We were deeply saddened to learn of Sally Bowerman's death. She was not a youngster cut down in her youth, but an oldster still growing, learning, and contributing, a Fishtrap and Community Elder living a rich life. Sally was a traveler, and Turkey was one of her favorite places. I was so looking forward to swapping stories with a dear friend who'd lived a life and knew how to tell a tale.

(Rich Wandschneider is director of Fishtrap, Inc., a nonprofit promoting writing excellence, and a longtime Chieftain columnist.)

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