Starting a new piece here on Monger Travels to bring some culture to you degenerates. I know, it may come as a shock but I am cultured, urbane, and damn well read. I watch only documentaries and historical programming and am a font of useless knowledge. Big Daddy can attest that I can hold discourse on many topics when I’m not being a contrary or drunk fucker. So I want to pass on some of this culture I have acquired through my various pursuits.
I am not sure why I bought Paul Theroux’s, Riding the Iron Rooster while I was in a book store but I did. It just seemed interesting so I snagged it and it opened up a world of travel writing that you don’t see much anymore. Too many “blogs” focus on the cheesy or flashy side of traveling with on a few humorous looks at some of the difficulties of traveling. Paul Theroux looks at it through the eyes of an experienced traveler who has seen it all and done it all and is now just looking to enjoy the act of traveling. It isn’t about looking at the monument or eating at this place, or the fake culture. It’s about getting in with the people, experiencing it not from some 5 star hotel, but on the streets.
Paul Theroux really started his travel writing with a book called The Great Railway Bazaar where he started in London and rode a train all through Asia back to London. It is a fascinating read from the 70’s that shows you how much the world has changed from then to now. He redid the route as closely as he could 30 years later in a book called Ghost Train to the Easter Star: On the Tracks of the Great Railway. Both of these books shows you that Theroux isn’t afraid to get into the mix and hit the streets. In the Great Railway Bazaar his description of a Vientiane gogo bar full of American GI’s on leave from Vietnam will shock even the most hardened of you. Yet, I’m going to give you a passage from Ghost Train to the Eastern Star that should make you take the time to read the book. I think we have all been in this exact situation at one point in our own travels.
One of the compelling features of Istanbul is that minutes from a palace or the holiest mosque or the most respectable neighborhood are their opposites-the the dive, the hove, the lower depths. The density of the city allows this proximity. The big-city conceit of the snob is the notion that sleaze is elsewhere, but it is usually on a few streets away.
So there I was, after leaving the Pera Palas, in the twinkling of an eye, in a dingy downstairs bar, the Club Saray, among mostly empty tables, greeting Marjana, who had just joined me.
“You buy me drink?”
She was thin, blond, starved-looking, and sullen. She might have been ill, but what struck me about her was that of all the girls in the bar, dimly lit though it was, she was reading a magazine. Though she had just folded it into her bag, I could see that it was not Turkish but Russian. She had been so engrossed in it, she was the one woman who had not looked up when I’d entered. What was a Russian woman doing here?
“What are you reading?”
That was when she’d put it away. She smiled, and after she’d sat down she said, “Pop stars. Music. Money.”
“I live Ukraine”- but it might have been “leave.”
“No Kiev. Small village.” She was sipping a glass of raki.
“Not nice. Small!” She shook her head, struggling for words.
“No life. No money.”
“You come to Istanbul to make money?”
“You have money?” She was thin, with delicate hands and a hungry mouth, and she said “money” like a famished person using a word for food.
“Plenty,” I said, and made the money sign with my finger.
“So buy me another drink.”
“You didn’t finish this one.”
I knew the routine. The conventional view is that these women are idle sauntering floozies, killing time over a a drink, lollygagging the day away on a bar stool. No, they are strict and even terrifying timekeepers, especially when they have a pimp to answer to. And it’s odd, because “Hurry up,” which is their mantra, is not an aphrodisiac and hardly an endearment. The meter was running. Time is everything to a prostitute. As clock watcher they are keener than lawyers, though the term “solicitor” applies to both, and they share the concept of billable hours, every minute needing to be accounted for in these foot-tapping, finger-drumming professions. The prostitute also shares the lawyer’s fake sympathy, the apparent concern for your welfare, the initial buttonholing how-can-I-help-you? clucking, the pretense of the help that is a way of ensnaring you and making you pay. In both cases, as long as you go on paying you have their full attention, but they are always in charge.
Marjana, I could tell by her sideways glances, was getting signals from a Turkish man, probably her pimp, his heels locked onto the rung of a chair as he rocked back with a drink in his hand.
“So we go?”
“No far. Near this place. I like you.” The second drink was set down. “I think you are strong man. You are from what country?”
“Big country. Lots of money. I want to go to America.”
“How did you get her, to Turkey?”
“My friend tell me I can make money here. She say, ‘Work in cafe.’ Good work.” Marjana looked a bit rueful, pursing her lips as she sloshed the raki in her mouth, then swallowed.
“You came-how? Bus? Plane?”
“I fly in plane. Is little money.”
“Who’s your boss? Ukrainian man?”
“Turk man.” She glanced to the side, where the man was still glowering, and she pressed her lips together. Then, with a toss of her head, “We go?”
“Talk, talk,” she said, irritated and impatient. She leaned over and tapped my knee. “What about fuck?”
I palmed some Turkish lire and put the notes into her hand, and gesture that shut her up but did not calm her. She looked at me though I might be weird, but the money was in the meter.
“You have family?” I asked. She nodded. “Husband?” She nodded, but more slowly. “Children?”
At first she simply stared; then she began to cry, pressing her knuckles against her eyes. She shook her head and looked miserable. I hung my head, and when I saw her shoes-high heels, scuffed and twisted and damp from the wet streets of Taksim-I felt miserable myself at the sight of her tormented toes.
A hard-faced woman loomed over her and began to mutter. She was plump, in a tight dress, and her potbelly was at the level of my eyes. I recognized the word prablyema. Marjana was still sniffling in sorrow
“What you say to Marjana?” the woman demanded.
“Nothing,” I said lamely.
“She cry,” the woman said.
Marjana tried to wave the woman away.
“I didn’t do anything,” I said, and sounded like a ten-year-old. But I had made her remember her small children.
The woman muttered again to Marjana. Tears, recrimination, defiance, accusation, more tears-this was as far from sex as it was possible to be. And at the periphery was a suggestion of violence in the smoldering gaze and threatening posture of the Turkish man.
The woman flicked her fat hand at me, grazing my face with her big fingernails. Though they were plastic glue-ons, they were sharp and claw-like, and could have served as weapons.
“Maybe you go, eh?”
Gladly, I thought. I stood up and backed away, a bit too quickly, but happy to go, saying goodbye. I had guessed that Marjana was one of the many women lured to Istanbul and kept against her will-with a family elsewhere, unable to help her. I had wanted to talk, but in such circumstances, in most circumstances, talk is trouble.
I know we have all had the conversation where time-is-money and you are on the clock with a prostitute, but how many of us have made them cry by asking questions. I have, I know what he went through. I know some will call bullshit on me and thats ok. I know what I have done and its simply from my own desire to understand that I sometimes cause my own self problems. Paul Theroux has resonated with me and to some extent I have started to pattern my own travels after him. Do yourself a favor and pickup a Paul Theroux book and see the world as many of monger travelers do and have it put to words.