This is part of a letter that I completed in 1994 on the Alaska Marine Highway on the way home from a trip to the Balkans. I wrote from my notes while we passed landmarks noted in the Southeast Alaska Marine Forecast. There is a letter from my Second trip to Istanbul in the post “Istanbul Streets.”
Area 1A, Inside Waters, Dixon Entrance to Skagway
March 1, 1994
Chatham Strait, Hawk Inlet to Point Gardner: It’s snowing, blowing, and freezing, like it was snowing, blowing, and freezing in Istanbul. For the whole week we spent in “sunny Turkey” we were never out of long johns, winter boots and stocking caps. The Alaska ferry is overly warm, not like our Turkish train compartment. On the train we were sleeping in our long johns, stocking caps and extra socks. The Turkish train conductor decided he wasn’t going to get the heat working and at 4:30 AM moved us to a different car.
Perhaps it was because we were so cold and tired but at 8:00 AM at the Istanbul station we were particularly venerable to the charms of “Jimmy” a 72 year old hotel keeper who has met trains for 18 years, and convinced people to come to his hotel “only a little out of town.” I normally don’t book hotels from touts, but Jimmy has his guest book and people said such nice things about his place…” He told us that he had worked at the “Hilton Astoria” in New York and had learned his hotel keeping skills in the United States. He didn’t say it was from reading John Irving Novels. He took us to the hotel in a 1968 Chevy Impala, which didn’t particularly like the snow and cold and kept stalling.
The hotel has an international cliental of low budget fellow travelers, and we developed camaraderie with the Dutch, Yugoslav, Korean, Australian, Jordanian, and British guests. “I pick my clients carefully, I don’t just go up to anyone, I see who will fit.” Every morning we got a huge breakfast, and every evening a multi coursed dinner served in a heated tent by Jimmy’s slushy with ice swimming poll. Jimmy had a musician who sang “Turkish and continental” with Jimmy doing the background vocals and beating a tambourine. Jimmy apologized for no belly dancer “It’s Ramadan.” In spite of the Moslem month of fasting there was unlimited Raki and Wine included in the fare. A Dutch patron leaned over the table while Jimmy beat out a polyrhythmic version of an Elvis song on his tambourine and whispered “This is the strangest hotel I’ve ever stayed in.”
The people working there were strange. Tomas was the guy who cleaned out the coal furnace every day. He had an original explanation of why we had no hot water each morning. Little Jimmy, one of Jimmy’s sons, was just plain weird. He called me over the first night to asked “why do dogs hiccup?” I tried to tip the waitress, who was the only one at the hotel who seemed normal, she was engaged to marry one of the Jimmy’s numerous other sons from his 5 marriages. She didn’t get it, until Jimmy whispered “Backsheech. Backsheech, like at the Hilton Astoria.”
Jimmy’s hotel is across the Bosporus in Asia, and every morning we had to take the commuter train 12 stops to the ferry. Initially I was angry because of the time it took but the daily train trip and the ferry across the Bosporus became integral to our Turkish experience. Every day different vendors sold everything from halva (presumably to non-Moslems) to light bulbs. A courtliness prevailed on the train. Older men gave up their seats to younger women. “Good afternoon dear lady.” I tried to give a seat to a little girl who was with her mother. The mother pulled the girl onto her lap and insisted I stay seated. She held eye contact for several seconds, smiled, and pulled the veil over her face, holding me with her eyes for several more seconds. It felt like forbidden sex in Ramadan on an Istanbul commuter train.
Chatham Strait, Cape Gardner to Port Alexander: In spite of the snow and cold the city charmed me. In Ramadan Moslems abstain from food, liquid and sex from sun-up to sun-down. Everyday the newspapers publish the exact minute of sundown. On the commuter train a man looks at his watch, pulls a can of orange pop from his briefcase, checks his watch again, and at 5:47 pops the top. Vendors selling sweet buns, nuts and halva swarm onto the car at the next stop.
On the jet cat across the Bosporus a crew member goes to the TV and changes channel from MTV to a channel where the call of the muezzin marks sundown. The sound of unwrapping food fills the cabin. You can hear the fast breaking. At the Grand Bazaar the loudspeaker sounds the sundown call to prayer and runners come in with racks of tea glasses, sandwiches, and bread. Business stops and, after prayer, the evening meal begins on the spot. Our last evening we were standing on the edge Golden Horn and heard the calls to prayer from a dozen minarets mixed with the cries of the vendors selling grilled fish fresh from the sea.
Area 1B, Outside waters, Cape Edgecumbe to Cape Fairweather: Salisbury Sound, close to home now. Jimmy tried to give us a ride to the train depot. At the harbor freeway we were stopped in a roadblock. The highway was closed because of the passage of some hazardous material. Jimmy shouted at the cops, gunned the Impala and ran the roadblock. “I’m a crazy old man, they won’t bother me.” A squad car gave chase. Jimmy opened up the Impala. We probably would have outraced the squad car except that a second car, and a mini bus full of cops pulled in front of us, at the next entrance and Jimmy pulled over. The cop who came up to the car was mad, foaming at the mouth mad, and he foamed all aver Jimmy with enough left over for those of us in the back seat. I thought of making a statement by opening my umbrella, but then thought better of it. Jimmy not only violated the law, but he refused to pay the bribe on the spot. The car was impounded. The problem was, what to do with three Americans and one Korean with a lot of luggage. At the impound we were poured into a taxi and taken to the ferry terminal. They did not put my computer bag in the taxi. It was hidden behind Jimmy’s spare tire. We had to go back to the impound lot and negotiate access to Jimmy’s trunk. The return of a laptop computer was worth a lot of Backsheech.