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Tue

07

Oct

2014

The $250 Grouper

September is a lovely time to visit Istanbul.  The Mediterranean sun is still bright but now it is warm and not sizzling.  However the traffic on Kennedy Boulevard is just as bad year round.  JFK would probably have mixed emotions about this city of 15 million today.  On one hand he would appreciate the success it has had in growing and engaging in a free enterprise economy.  On the other hand he would surely roll his eyes at the congestion.  That said, tourists continue to pour into the city both as a destination and a jumping off point for adventures around the eastern Mediterranean.  Both modern and exotic it is a blending of worlds with a result unknown in most of Europe: it’s fairly cheap. 


We tend to hang around the Old City, the Sultanhamet.  It is convenient to both the airport and midway to the cruise port.  It’s also scenic, historic and, if you have double pane windows at your hotel, very pleasant.  The double panes of your windows are necessary to hold down the nearby street noise but, more importantly, to muffle the Imam’s wakeup call every morning around 4:30 am.  The first call to prayer is well before dawn and made by a most determined cleric who will not be satisfied until all are awake and ready to start their day with prayer.  So, if you are not Muslim, the half dozen mosques around the Old City, all broadcasting their calls to prayer over their loud speaker systems, can lead to an uncomfortable half hour of wailing.  It would seem that they could at least synchronize their clocks and all broadcast at the same time.  So closed windows with double pane glass are a nice luxury in the Old City.


We tend to enjoy at least one evening dining at the rooftop restaurant Seven Hills.  Perched upon the top of the hotel by the same name its al fresco view is hard to beat.  The old is perfectly visible to the west, the Sofia Hagia and Blue Mosque, the frenzy of the Bosporus and the commerce of the Sea of Marmara visible to the east.  It is a photographer’s delight.  Locals tend to turn their noses up at the area as ‘touristy’ but, hey, we’re tourists. 

Tonight the restaurant is busy and our Turkish waiter is flying by, flinging out table settings and taking wine orders.  Lights begin mysteriously appearing on buildings all around us as the sun settles.  The setting is sublime so the talk turns to fish.  Our waiter informs us that they have an excellent selection of fresh fish available, would we like to inspect it?  We stroll over to the fresh fish case to examine the toothy victims lying in a bed of ice.  They all do, indeed, appear fresh and delicious.  We select a nice red grouper which will look very good on the grill.  The waiter rubs his hands, makes a note and then pauses.  He looks around, smiles and then asks if I’m aware that this grouper is 500 lira, Turkish.  Still fogged a bit by jet lag I do the math.  Holy catfish, buckwheat!  That’s a $250 grouper!  Indeed I’m not aware, nor that hungry.  We settle on a couple of nice, fresh sea bass, much more pedestrian a choice but not as devastating to the wallet. 


Settling back into my chair the Sofia Hagia appears splendid and regal in the light of sunset, belying its troubled past.  Built as the first Christian cathedral in the ancient city of Byzantium the troubles it has passed through only serve to celebrate it more.  When the Emperor Constantine moved, in the fifth century, to Byzantium as the new seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, the city was renamed in his honor: Constantinople.  Constantine’s conversion to Christianity opened the door for the growth of Christianity.  To honor his new religion he ordered a new cathedral to be built on the site of a pagan temple.  Unfortunately the cathedral was built of wood and burned down the next century.  Rebuilt as a larger cathedral it, in turn, was destroyed during the Nika revolt a century later.  Justinian the Great was the emperor at time and brooked little nonsense.  He brutally suppressed the Nika revolt, and then ordered a new, bigger, grander cathedral built at the same location.  He demanded a work that would be marveled. The emperor got his wish. Over 10,000 people worked on the construction at one time.  Materials, such as marble, were brought in from throughout the eastern Mediterranean region.  Completed around 537 AD it was the marvel Justinian had sought.  Unfortunately it only lasted about 30 years when an earthquake caused the dome of the church to completely collapse. 


Rebuilt even larger it became the seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the site of many imperial events.  It reigned in regal splendor until 1204 and the arrival of the Fourth Crusade.  The Christian crusaders of Western Europe attacked and conquered Constantinople in one of the most bizarre events of the Crusading Era.  Everything of value was stripped out of Constantinople and hauled back to Western Europe.  Sofia Hagia did not escape this treatment.  The Crusaders stripped the altar of its adornments, the walls of their art, even the vestments from the backs of the priests.  Herds of mules were led into the cathedral to be loaded with booty.

 
During the brief rule of the Latins, the cathedral was used as a church for the Roman Catholic Church.  When the Greeks recovered control of the Byzantine Empire the cathedral was, once again, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral.   And so it remained until 1453 with the coming of the Turks. 
Constantinople, and its predecessor Byzantium, had enjoyed a thousand year run as a walled city which no one, except the Latins, could conquer.  The old city walls, however, could not stand up to the modern cannon of the Turks and Mehmed the Conqueror would triumph in his attack.  The Byzantine emperor was killed in the fighting and the Turks were the master of Constantinople.  They immediately changed the city’s name to Istanbul.  And they marveled at the Sofa Hagia.  Instantly it was turned from a Christian cathedral to a Muslim mosque.  Minarets would be built and Christian images plastered over.  It would be the principle mosque in Istanbul for almost 200 years. 


By the 17th century, however, the Turks decided they needed a newer and grander edifice as their mosque.  The Blue Mosque was then constructed over a period of 10 years.  Opposing the Sofia Hagia, and built on the site of the former Byzantine palace, the Blue Mosque eclipsed the Sofia Hagia, which entered into a decline.  Several renovation projects over the next several centuries tried to preserve the old building.  It was not until 1935, when Ataturk would secularize the building and convert it into a museum, that the building’s future was assured.  Considerable sums were spent in renovations and dome repairs.  Fortunately, it has proven to be a popular tourist attraction – three million people a year pass through it to admire its grandeur and history.  Their admission fees go far to help maintain the building. 


Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium.  All one.  Thousands of years of history and millions of people, coming and going, all stacked up in one place.  And visible from a rooftop in early evening.  The sea bass was good, too.  And cheap. 

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Thu

15

May

2014

The Death of Cook

It had all been just a terrible mistake. Things got out of hand. It was tragic. Really. An accident. A fatal one. Today a lonely monument stands in solitary salute, isolated across a small bay, on the location of the tragic event.

 

James Cook was undoubtedly the most famous navigator of the 18th century. Indeed, his name is still revered as a paragon of exploration, navigation expertise and accomplishment. Called ‘Captain Cook’ he was but a lieutenant in the Royal Navy. Yet because he commanded a ship he was entitled to be called ‘Captain’. He was not a British aristocrat nor did he have much in the way of political influence. But he was a steady and accomplished British naval officer who was, at first, charged with a relatively minor task: sail to Tahiti and observe the transit of Venus.

 

The Royal Navy had a problem with navigation. In the 18th century navigation was still an inexact science and the Navy paid a huge toll in shipwrecks as its ships piled up on both charted and uncharted reefs. Some men of science proposed that if the transit of Venus across the face of the sun could be plotted from different locations on the globe, they would be able to more accurately plot the circumference of the earth. This, in turn, would help them determine longitude. Not true, as is turns out. But the effort gained unexpected results. During his journey Cook would explore and map many previously unknown Polynesian islands. His scientists would bring back exciting new discoveries, titillating the world by the display of previously unknown floras and faunas, all magnificently exotic. Cook would be sent three times to the Pacific to explore and map. His discoveries would confirm the presence of a continent called Australia. He would bring back the first maps of a place called New Zealand.

 

In his third voyage he was asked to do the impossible – find the mythical ‘Northwest Passage’. The northern way around North America, the Northwest Passage, was the Holy Grail of exploration. The only problem was that it didn’t exist. Nobody knew that for sure so Cook was sent to confirm or deny its existence.

 

So Cook returned to the familiar waters of Tahiti. He spent some time refitting his two ships, Resolution and Discovery, and charting islands with their attendant bays and possible anchorages. He then departed to the north, headed for Canada and the pursuit of the Northwest Passage. However, a strange thing happened enroute. About a month north of Tahiti land was sighted. But there was no land here. At least none plotted on Royal Navy charts. It appeared to Cook to be a series of islands. And it was. Cook and his crew were the first men to sail from Tahiti to Hawaii in over 500 years. As Cook approached the island of Kauai canoes came out to greet him, offering fruit and fish for trade. The language that was shouted from the canoes sounded much like the Tahitian language Cook had mastered. He would constantly wonder how these people, so similar to Tahitians, had arrived in these islands over 2,000 miles from the nearest land. He would never know the answer to that riddle.

 

 

As Cook coasted around these strange islands he arrived off the Big Island, Hawaii. His arrival was mistaken by the Hawaiian priests as the coming of the god Lono. He was treated with reverence and pomp, his two ships loaded with fresh food. Cook and his crew ventured ashore and formed acquaintance and friendships with many of the Hawaiians. Cook would write in his log that he was surprised by the relative wealth and organization of this new society. There was obviously a royal court complete with king and courtiers, a priestly class and a common people accomplished in a variety of trades. His relationship with the Hawaiians was one of mutual exploration, neither side understood the other. But the Hawaiians, a Stone Age people, understood the superior technology of the westerners and the clear implication of their metals and tools. Nothing of metal was safe around any Hawaiian. They wanted it all.

 

Despite the serendipitous finding of these islands Cook was not to be deterred from his main mission of seeking the Northwest Passage. The small expedition headed north into the Pacific, the ships groaning under the gifts of food supplied by the Hawaiians. Only to return. A storm at sea had sprung the main mast of one of the ships. It was foolish to continue in such condition so Cook returned to Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island for repair.

 

The coast of the Big Island is not the creamy sand beaches that many imagine for Hawaii. Instead the beaches, if they exist, are black sand and rocky. Many are small with little protection from ocean waves. Kealakekua Bay offered modest protection from the ocean swell and access to forests for timber for repairs.

 

But the Hawaiians were troubled by the return of Cook. If, as they supposed, Cook was a god, why did he return? It was not his season. He had left - he should remain gone until his time of coming next year. And why would a god need help in repairing his strange canoe? A certain uneasiness crept over the Hawaiians and their relationship with the strangers. Perhaps they weren’t gods at all, perhaps they were something else? While Cook and his crew struggled ashore to find and shape a tree with which to repair their main mast, trouble broke out.

 

Early one morning the officer of the watch reported to Cook that one of the ship’s boats was missing. The Resolutions’ two boats had been tied off behind the ship overnight. Some one had cut one of the boats loose overnight and stolen it. This was a very serious matter to the British. The boats were the only way for the crew to get ashore for water and supplies. Without his boats Cook knew he was in serious difficulty. Cook knew he must act immediately to recover the boat.

 

 

He ordered out a landing party of Marines, armed with muskets and bayonets. Leading the landing party, in two boats, he landed on the rocky beach on the north side of Kealakekua Bay. As this was the area where the Ali’i lived he was greeted by a welcoming committee. He brushed aside the greeters and headed for the king’s house. Kalaniopuu was the Ali’i nui, king of kings, of the Big Island of Hawaii. Kalaniopuu and Cook had formed a respectful friendship as Kalaniopuu recognized Cook as, if not a god, at least the Ali’i or chief of the strangers. He was honored by Cook’s sudden appearance but surprised that he would appear unannounced. Which was Cook’s whole intent. Cook had dealt with theft by locals in a variety of islands in his explorations. A show of force, sometimes even the use of force, had inevitably resolved the problem. Another strategy had been to seize a head man and hold him hostage against the return of the stolen item. This method had worked equally well for Cook. Cook intended to take Kalaniopuu on board his ship and hold him hostage for the return of the stolen boat.

 

Little did Cook know that his action was too little too late. A sub-chef had ordered the theft of the boat during the night. The boat had been hauled ashore and burned for its nails. Metal fasteners were more valuable than gold to the Hawaiians.

 

Cook began insisting that Kalaniopuu accompany him to his ship, immediately. Kalaniopuu was an elderly man and the king of kings. He was usually sheltered from this type of sudden activity by his court. He had no wish to offend his fellow chief, Cook, by refusal but was confused as to Cook’s insistence and urgency. Cook’s animated behavior also alarmed the court, who urged the king not to go. The sight of the red coated Marines with bayonets fixed did nothing to calm the members of the court. Cook managed to get Kalaniopuu started down the path toward the beach over the loud objections of the court. The sound of an altercation near the king’s home brought other Hawaiians running to investigate. Confusion reigned. With Kalaniopuu in Cook’s close company there was no one to issue orders to the court. Various commands were shouted among the Hawaiians. Some tried to block the route of march to the beach. Pushing and shoving with the Marines began. The Marines made threatening gestures with their bayonets toward the Hawaiians. The Hawaiians were not intimidated. They knew nothing of firearms but did know they had the contingent of Marines greatly outnumbered. They demanded the release of the king. Cook refused. The beach was in sight. His boats waited just offshore. But the press of the Hawaiians was too much. Rocks were thrown. A musket fired, then another. Clubs and stone daggers appeared in the hands of the Hawaiians. Cook ordered the king released and his men to fall back to the beach. Too little. Too late. By now the melee had become general, men struggling, stabbing, falling. Marines, offshore in the boats, began to fire into the crowd. Cook turned his back to the shore and began waving to his boats. Some would say it was a signal to cease firing. Others would say it was a signal to come in immediately and take them off. Much would be written about the actions of the officer in command of the boats that day. The writings would not compliment him.

 

Cook, on that rocky beach with his back to the shore, was struck from behind by a club. He fell to his knees. He was then stabbed with a stone dagger as he disappeared under a mass of attackers. Their leader down, their boats still offshore, the press of the Hawaiians too great, the surviving Marines dropped their muskets and swam for the boats. The struggle was over. The boats would pull for the safety of the ships, which by now had run out their cannon. There was nothing to do now but count the dead. On both sides.

 

The British were stunned by the death of their leader, a legendary man. The Hawaiians were equally stunned. What had happened? Nobody had felt ill will toward Cook. The King thought of him as a fellow leader. He admired him. The King mourned. When the King mourned, everyone mourned.

 

Overnight the British licked their wounds. The Hawaiians buried their dead. Including Cook. Since the King regarded him as an Ali’i, he would be buried as an Ali’i. The Hawaiians believed that a man’s spiritual power, or mana, reposed in his bones. The rest was just so much flesh. Therefore they only buried the bones of their kings; the rest of the body was disposed with. And they buried their kings in secret so that no one would steal the bones and their mana.

 

Charles Clerke would assume command of the expedition. One of his first orders was to demand of the Hawaiians the body of Cook. The British wished to give their leader a proper burial. They had no idea that the Hawaiians had already seen to that. After much delay the Hawaiians would turn over some of Cook’s bones. What happened to the rest of them will never be known. But the return of the bones would give rise to an ugly rumor: the Hawaiians had not only killed Cook but eaten him too. False. The Hawaiians, and most Polynesians, were not cannibalistic. On special occasion they may indulge in human sacrifice, but they did not eat people. Instead they had returned to the British that part of Cook which the Hawaiians regarded as sacred. They had sent this strange Ali’i back to his people, his mana intact.

 

The lonely monument on the small bay is accessible only by foot or by boat. The foot path runs two miles downhill. And two challenging miles back uphill. One may also kayak over from the state park on the other side of the Bay. It is just as the Hawaiians had accessed the bay those many years before. For a man who would have towns, rivers and islands named after him, it is small enough tribute. It is mournful, standing in isolation all alone. When the King mourns, everyone mourns.

 

 

 

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Mon

17

Mar

2014

Windy Wellington

We had heard that Wellington was windy.  Little did we know.  When we disembarked from the Seabourn Sojourn in Wellington, N.Z., our toil done and our three weeks work on the World Cruise complete, we were confronted by a day which, anywhere in the world, could only be described as wonderful.  Sunny skies, mild temperatures, light breezes and crowds of Kiwis everywhere, cavorting in the sunshine.  We passed the time with the Salvation Army chaplain at the Seaman's Center on the pier as we waited for our taxi.  Even he warned: "This is not our usual weather".  Little did we know.

 

We spent the rest of the day walking the waterfront and worrying about sunburn, since I had forgotten my hat.  It seemed the locals, though, had thrown caution to the wind (no pun) and were worshiping the sun on the sidewalks, beachfront, playing fields.  People were everywhere.  We felt fortunate in that our Kiwi friend in the desert, Lindsay Fenwick, had provided us with a list for a pub crawl.  We knew it to be authoritative as it had come from his cousin who had been a career Kiwi diplomat, spending large amounts of time in New Zealand's capital: Wellington.  Wellington is largely in the shadow of its big brother to the north - Auckland.  But it is the capital city, it is located on a lovely bay and surrounded by rolling hills.  While its population is only a third of its big brother's, is seems filled with friendly Kiwis.  Little did we know. 

 

 

the REAL KIWI
the REAL KIWI

I had always regarded Kiwis as something akin to their national bird and namesake: the flightless bird of the forest floor with the long beak.  Friendly, harmless, even cute.  Sort of like down-under Canadians, as it were.  You know, those polite, mild mannered people who live just north of the U.S.  The lad who once described Canadians as "...unarmed Americans with health care..." was bang on.  So Kiwis were viewed in the same light.  After all, a people who insist on their islands being both nuclear free and smoke free must be high minded.  Then we discovered the Backbencher.

the BACKBENCHER
the BACKBENCHER

The Kiwi Parliament building is only a few blocks from the waterfront, easily accessible to citizens who wish to disembark their ferry and march straight up Molesworth Street to lay their case before their elected representatives.  Lurking directly across the street from the Parliament stands the Backbencher, ever ready to lend support to protest, Parliamentary outrage or, on a bad day, downright civil disobedience.  One senses this before one even enters its doors.  What other pub, directly across from a parliament, would have the cheek to bill itself as "the House with no Peers".  Hmmmm.  There was obviously something going on here.  Stepping inside the pub one's gaze is diverted from all those taps by the oversized puppets of New Zealand's political leaders hanging from the walls.  At least they weren't hanging by the neck. 

 

But the slicing and dicing continued with the menus.  Each of the fine menu items is named for one of New Zealand's finest politicians.  The dish is then described by said politician's  lastest faux pax or more memorable quote.  So.  Obviously the Kiwis take their politics seriously, if not their politicians.  Sort of like rugby played with razors.  Ouch.  Certainly entertaining from the outside but deadly if one is actually in the scrum.

the FIRST MATE defies the WIND
the FIRST MATE defies the WIND

Oh yes, the wind.  It isn't all in Parliament.  We arose the next morning and peered out from our harbor front hotel into a different world.  Low overcast skies with clouds fleeing before that wind, which had returned to reclaim its empire.  It seems Wellington resides on the south end of North Island.  And the north end of South Island is separated from Wellington only by Cook Straight.  The Straight is a mere 14 miles wide and bordered by high hills on each of the islands.  As a result those winds of the 'Roaring Forties' have no place to go but through the Straight.  Here they meet Giovanni Venturi.  Venturi, an 18th century Italian physicist, described how air, when passing through a restricted space, increases in velocity and decreases in pressure and temperature.  And, boy, does it.  Wellington, at forty degrees south latitude, is well into the Roaring Forties, those latitudes famous for their strong and constant winds.  Shove those already strong winds through a 'Venturi', the Cook Straight, and watch them howl. 

 

At least the Wellingtonians have a sense of humor about it.  The First Mate decided to emulate the waterfront art iron sculpture "Solace in the Wind".  Neither sculpture nor First Mate were ever in danger of falling into the harbor with that wind blowing.

WHICH HOBBIT'S HOUSE?
WHICH HOBBIT'S HOUSE?

Windy or not, the locals take small note.  One is reminded of a Londoner, with umbrella tucked tightly under the arm, even on a sunny day.  Same for Wellington - wind or no wind, press on.  The same should be said for visitors: press on and the the sights of Wellington are yours in just a day or two.  Take the Cable Car from downtown.  Exit that short ride and turn right into Wellington Botanic Garden, camera at the ready.  A pleasant stroll, downhill, is eye-popping.  An astute photographer can capture his subject here in any number of settings, all of which explain why Peter Jackson chose his home town region for scenes for his Hobbit movies.

 

Being an inveterate museum creature, I was compelled to spend the afternoon in that fabulous place called Te Papa.  It could easily have been all day.  If the Kiwis were striving for a world class museum they certainly reached their goal.  And it has two of my favorite things, as a time pressed tourist, for any attraction: free entry and open every day.  That's every day as in 365.  But one is well advised to make a plan.  The place is huge and diverse.  And there is further good news for the family that are not museum creatures.  Te Papa is right on the harbor walk almost in the center of town.  It's easy to escape the museum and disappear into one of the harbor shops, cafes or pubs.  Just ask the First Mate.

 

The final bit of good news:  Wellington is foot friendly.  It is possible to go almost everywhere and do almost anything on foot.  The only time you will need wheels is for that short drive out to the Wellington airport for the first leg of your onward journey.  Little did we know. 

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