Monday, September 29, 2014

A Boat Ride Away (Orinoco, Nicaragua)

It was a thicker morning fog than usual when I stepped out of my room at Miss Ingrid's home and onto the wet grass. I had been teaching here for several weeks at this point, but today was special in that I was leaving Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua, and travelling to the nearby (but not so nearby) community of Orinoco. For context, let me kindly note that I do indeed currently live in Istanbul, but my experiences teaching in Nicaragua, however brief (one month placement), still resonate deeply with me. It was, after all, only a few months ago that I was there. On this particular day, I was part of a delegation from Pearl Lagoon that was heading up a teaching conference. Primarily, the delegation was composed of teachers from the Pearl Lagoon community, but my friend Kevin, a Peace Corps volunteer, and I were also asked to tag along. I fully intend to write more about my experiences in Pearl Lagoon, but this post on Orinoco should serve as a small indication of what life was like there for me.

Transportation in rural Nicaragua, on the Caribbean Coast, is done primarily by boat. So, at the break of dawn I walked with some purpose and a touch of nerves towards the dock. A small boat, a panga, was waiting, which was borrowed from the mayor of Pearl Lagoon for this particular excursion. A 45 minute, bumpy boat ride later and we had arrived at the shores of Orinoco.

The boat pulled away, and we understood that it would be back later that day. I tried to imagine where my location was on google maps, if it even existed on there. The seclusion of communities like Orinoco cause immeasurable struggle for them, but in this moment there was a small beauty in it.

Orinoco is known as the "capital of the Garifuna peoples in Nicaragua." The Garifuna are descendants from West and Central Africa as well as the Caribbean. They have a rich culture and history, and I felt nothing short of blessed to be welcomed into their community. The Garifuna peoples are primarily now in Central America in Nicaragua and countries bordering Nicaragua.

The air was still dense with fog which added a freshness to the day, but also a touch of blur to my photos.

The community itself probably has a population of a few thousand, and the fact that there are no roads allowed the very intimate opportunity to walk along the paths, weaving in and out of the houses and community buildings. There is a health centre there, and I understood that electricity is supplied most days from 10am until midnight. However, my experience living in neighbouring (and larger) Pearl Lagoon would inform me that this can be a bit optimistic at times. Power and water could go out for days at a time with simply nothing to be done about it. Many of the elders in Pearl Lagoon spoke of Orinoco fondly as a place that resembled what Pearl Lagoon used to be, before its push towards modernization and development.

As Kevin and I were some of the first people to arrive, we walked around the school's grounds and attempted to mentally plan out our day.

We began the day as most people do in Nicaragua, with prayer and song. After this we spent the morning doing various activities where I was primarily helping out with organization and encouraging participation. About 50 or so teachers had made the trip from around the Pearl Lagoon community to the school grounds of Orinoco. I can recall the day with almost surreal clarity. I especially recall our lunch, which featured some local vegetables like cassava, accompanied by some seasoned turtle (a delicacy in the region).

The afternoon was my time to shine. I led a seminar, that turned out to be hours in length, on effective teaching of reading comprehension, which also focused on 3-part lesson planning, learning goals and success criteria, and a handful of other tips that were still fresh in my mind from teacher's college.

I can only hope that my lesson was useful to those who were there, but I know with certainty that the whole process was invaluable to me. The municipal director of Pearl Lagoon bestowed a lot of confidence and faith in my that day, and for that I am for ever grateful. In the time before we departed back to Pearl Lagoon, we celebrated our day's achievements. How? With traditional dance and a beverage, of course.

I've always been astounded at the amount of places I hadn't ever heard of that I now can personally associate with personal memories that I'll never forget. Orinoco, Nicaragua now holds one of these places in my mind. Certainly not without their struggles, the people of Orinoco had such an innate happiness - without those modern items that most people in the Western world "couldn't live without." If nothing else, teaching here for the day kindly reminded me that what we really "can't live without" is kindness, perseverance, and an unbreakable sense of hope. 

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Strategic Sanctuary - Rumeli Fortress (Istanbul, Turkey)

More than almost any city I've visited, Istanbul feels like a city that's actually more like an amalgamation of a number of smaller cities, each with their own culture. I've lived in Seoul, South Korea (notoriously large with disparate areas), so I feel I can make a statement like that and have it carry at least some validity. And so, we left the concrete haven of Taksim Square, and headed for watery Bebek, which is technically in Istanbul's Beşiktaş neighourhood. There was decidedly less concrete. 

Strolling down Bebek's promenade, I couldn't help feel that I had left Istanbul altogether and gone on a vacation to another city, somewhere in the Mediterranean, perhaps. Scantily clad older gentlemen fished along the seaside and dove into the water with surprising gusto, and all seemed to be pleasantly soaking up the sun. Happiness did not strike me as particularly hard to come by in this affluent area. Bebek, I might note (because...why not?), means "baby" in Turkish.

Though Bebek is lovely, the real goal of the trek was to make it to the Rumeli Fortress, in nearby Sarıyer, the northernmost district of Istanbul. Oppressive heat aside, it was very impressive. 

The Rumeli Fortress (or Rumelihisari) was built by Ottaman Sultan Mehmed II before he actually laid claim to all of Constantinople. The fort was purposefully built to prevent any reinforcements coming up the Bosporus for the Byzantines while Constantinople was being fought over. The fact that seems to be displayed the loudest throughout the fortress is that it was built between 1451 and 1452 in just a matter of months - that's quite the feat. From a distance (especially on the Asian side), you can clearly notice the three large towers (named after 3 of Mehmed's esteemed political strategists), which are connected with a multitude of other lookouts and viewpoints. Given it's hillside position, I can only imagine it served its purpose with flying colours.

I was once again blessed to spend the day with people I love - Bri, Chantal, Jamie, and Anjali. Bri and I will be heading to Bulgaria with them on vacation in less than two weeks, and I'm sincerely looking forward to it. I didn't quite know all that then, though - my visit to Rumeli was only about two weeks after I arrived, and if I recall correctly, I just remember thinking, "Yeah, so this is my home now? um...sign me up."

After fulfilling its duty as a fortress, (only 4-500 or so hundred years ago), Rumeli has served as a customs checkpoint, prison, and even makeshift settlement, but I'm pleased I was able to enter the fortress under its current incarnation - as an open-air museum.

In terms of blogging, I'm currently trying to catch-up to all that I've done so far in Istanbul, which is a good thing, so the even better news is that the list of things to do in this city is simply endless. I imagine I'll be quite behind on writing when I do finally leave, but the general uncertainty of when that will be leaves me with a sweet taste in my mouth (that could be all the sugary tea I drink here, though). Rumeli was a stop I'm pleased I made, and something I did not have the chance to check off the list when Bri and I were here 5 years ago.

Well, I hope you've felt it was worth stopping by, and if not, my blissful ignorance of who exactly you are ensures that I'm not offended. Though, whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, I appreciate the support.

Until later, but not too much later,


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Drops of History - Basilica Cistern (Istanbul, Turkey)

When you can feel the dank walls of history literally dripping on you, it's a kind reminder that you're in a special place. Let's say 532 AD special.

Known as the largest surviving Byzantine cistern, this remarkable place was built using 336 separate columns. Bridges for tourists strategically weave through the columns, making for the utmost sensory appeal. As I overtly mentioned in my opening paragraph, the history drips on you. The air is an odd combination of cold, moist, and heavy. I suppose I remember the sensory details because this is not a place that cameras thrive. It's all in the physical experience, as the grainy photographs only give half the picture - pun, fully intended.

The cistern itself was built during the height of the Byzantine empire, under the rule of Emperor Justinian. The cistern was actually filled using an elaborate system (20 km) of aqueducts from the Black Sea. Apparently, it could store up 80,000 cubic litres of water. The goal was to provide water to the nearby Topkapi Palace.

Legend has it that the place was all but forgotten until the 16th century, when people began telling tales of being able to miraculously retrieve water from below their floorboards, and in some cases were even fishing (Many large koi fish can still be seen swimming the waters). The cistern only really became fit for the public in 1987, and now it's one of Istanbul's major tourist pulls. Not to mention, it's featured in the James Bond film From Russia with Love.

When I read Lars Brownworth's book "Lost to the West: The Forgotten Byzantine Empire That Rescued Western Civilization" while I lived in Korea, this is the sort of stuff that was floating through my brain. I, for the record, adored that book - perhaps it's a small reason as to why I find myself here now.

If the impressive feats of architecture and engineering aren't enough for you, beautiful displays of craftsmanship can be found everywhere, especially on the ceiling. What really draws people's attention, however, is the northwest corner of the cistern. The medusa column bases. Many theories exists in reference to them and why exactly they're there, but none are considered flawless, so perhaps it is the mystery itself which draws people in.

Istanbul is not a city without its challenges, of that I can confidently conclude after a month. Nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems, and nothing seems to come easily. But, the truth is that in Istanbul, it's worth it. I get to spend my weekends leaving the comfortable modernity that my neighbourhood, Şişli, offers and seemingly time travel back a few hundred or thousand years, depending on the area. What perhaps excites me most is the notion that boredom will never be something I have to confront here. Good or bad, everything here is worth writing about.