“Traveling has a zealousness about it that turns the traveler into a complete blockhead. He is searching for the extraordinary within the everyday environment of others.” —Cees Nooteboom.1. [Ankara] Michel Butor writes that to arrive in a city is to already be preceded by text: guidebooks, maps, fiction. Arriving into Ankara on Monday, and taking the taxi to the hotel, I thought of the first time I arrived to the city. It was in 2007, and it was my third trip to Turkey. I arrived by overnight train from Istanbul, and I remembered waking up in my cabin in the morning, opening the curtains, seeing the passing landscape, and thinking, What am I doing here? My first trip to Turkey, two years earlier, was to fulfill one of those childhood dreams of mine, which was to see Istanbul. Aside from that, I never thought that I would continue to return to Turkey. Arriving into Ankara that first time, everything seemed so unfamiliar: I was not preceded by text, I knew almost nothing about the city other than it was the capital, and that I was attending a conference at a university whose name I could barely pronounce, Hacettepe. The hotel where I was staying, over in what I now is Çankaya, was on a quiet street across from the Mexican embassy. As I had far more limited Turkish, far less than the 3-year-old Turkish I have now, I had spoken very little and I thought about going to the embassy to say hi. As I arrived a day before the conference, I spent most of the day sleeping off the jet lag in my room and trying to figure out why YouTube was being blocked. In the evening, I went for a walk to see if I could find a place to eat and ended up in a tiny pide place a few streets over. I walked back to the hotel in the dark and read emails from friends in Spain. Seven years later, I arrive by train again into Ankara. This time from Erzurum. Watching the city pass from the window of my cabin, it all seems so familiar. Checking into my hotel on Tunali in Ankara, after a brief, stilted, conversation with my taxi driver —we talk about football—, I go to my room, discover that it has a small terrace, and I step outside to listen to the sounds of the city. Then I went to check in with my friends in Ankara, to tell them that I was back.
2. [Istanbul] In a taxi, headed to (I hope) the metro station at Yenisahra. The driver blasts out Turkish to me, giving me the impression that he thinks I’m mistaken that there’s a metro stop there, or that he wants to take me to Kadıkoy metro. I tell him to take me to Carrefour. On the way, he turns on the radio and a song that has a chorus that sounds like “icky yabancı” —which would be iki yabancı, two foreigners, but which I hear as “icky foreigners”— and the driver cheers. I make it to the metro stop, Kozyataği, the meter reads 11 tl, I give the driver 20, he gives me back 10 and tells me its fine and smiles. I say goodbye, and out into the rain I go. My life is one big series of miscommunications that somehow work out.
3. [Mexico City] After a long time living in a place where I can get almost anywhere in 15 minutes, or less, I’m slightly shocked by the time it takes to get from the airport to the colonia Roma. The taxi driver swerves through traffic —as does everyone else—, I lose count of the near misses. Once at the Roma, we run into a friend who is out for a walk and he comments on how it is fantastic to be in Mexico City these days, traffic is light.
4. [Madrid] Years ago, over cañas with friends in Barcelona, we started talking about what was the point at which we could say that a city was ours. One friend responded, We know a city is ours when we can leave it behind. The last time I left Madrid, I didn’t feel a thing. Madrid had been a city that had marked an important period of my life, but it was a time that I had left behind; I had entered another moment, Madrid was simply just a place I used to know. Leaving it, back then, it didn’t matter to me if I spent years away from the city, or if I never came back. This time, however, I do feel a little sad. Though I spent a lot of time remembering those places where I used to walk, and those close friends who I used to spend time with, this time I felt that the city had new things to say to me. Hanging with friends, wandering the streets, seeing the changes, Madrid no longer felt like used memories. More than a city I used to know, these last few days have reminded me that it’s a city that I would like to know again. Somehow, I think, I have found my Madrid.
5. [Mexico City] It is about this time that I start commenting on the weird magical realism of Mexico City, a magical urbanism perhaps. This is a city where odd, almost to weird to be true, things can happen —we comment on Juan Villoro’s crónicas of life in Mexico City— and no one is surprised. Just then a woman comes up to me carrying a box of jars of multi-colored candy and she tells us, Listen, I have here jars of magic pills. And I’m here to tell you that they truly work. Then she proceeds to pull out the jars and show us what each one is for: for happiness, to recover from fights, to find peace. Pills, magic pills, for urban citizens who who have lost their senses of connection.
6. [Mexico City] Mexico City memory. I moved to Mexico in August, 1987, almost two years after the devastating earthquake of 1985. There were still ruined buildings in the area of the Centro Histórico. Back then the city government was trying out different ways to mitigate traffic and one of their solutions was to close off the Centro Histórico to cars on weekend nights. One night, a week or so before the two year anniversary of the quake, a friend and I decided to go for a walk in that area. As we walked the dark, silent streets of the colonial center, I remember being freaked out at the lack of sounds of car traffic. All was silent, but for our footsteps and the sound of water dripping from a pipe somewhere. When we got to the Zócalo, the cathedral and the palace were lit up. Out in the center of the thirteen square meter plaza, near the base of the flagpole, there was a crowd of maybe a hundred people, all silent. They had made a giant cross in candles on the plaza. They stood around it silently, paying respect to those who died on that 19th of September.
Yesterday, walking from metro Juárez to Bellas Artes, I cut across a park that now stands where a hotel used to be. It now has a marker to the dead, two hands rising from the ground, grasping a pole.
7. [Turkey] Numerous times, in Erzurum, I was asked why I was taking the train to Ankara. The train will take days, it will stop everywhere, the trip will be boring, I was told. But I didn’t take the train because of that, I travelled by rail because of all this: the dramatic mountain landscapes —peaks with strips of snow, craggy rock formations, long tunnels that plunged my cabin into darkness— giving way to rolling hills and large plains; the views of the Euphrates river as we followed it through mountain passes and valleys; villages in the mountains, small cities on the plain; forests of poplar trees blowing in the wind; bursts of lightning as we rolled through a storm; farmers working in their fields, herders tending to their flocks, families having picnics in the late afternoon shade; people standing on the land looking at the passing train; four friends sitting in the dining car, cracking jokes, and sharing a meal; the horror of large construction sites, machines tearing into the earth, clouds of dust rising into the sky; stopping at train stations and seeing people greeting or saying goodbye to families, friends, and loved ones. I took the train because I wanted to spend the hours writing and grading final papers, but instead all of this world and the stories happening outside held me.
8. [Ecuador] When I was in eastern Turkey, a month ago, the sun would rise at a little past 4 am and set around 9 pm. When I was in Madrid, two weeks ago, the sun would rise around 6:30 am and set around 10 pm. Here in Ecuador, the sun rises at around 6 am and sets at around 6 pm. It’s strange to have the days divided fairly equally between day and night.
9. [Mexico City] “Ya se está oscureciendo, jefe.” My taxi driver tells me as we wait in traffic on a rainy, Tuesday afternoon in Mexico City. I think the comment is something out of a David Lynch film. Odd, menacing, but said by an old man who can barely see over the steering wheel. It’s not getting dark, it’s still light out. The rain has stopped and after a late lunch of tacos —Tacos Manolo has a salsa roja that I’ve never seen anywhere else, it’s got a peanut base— and then coffee and conversation at Café La Habana, I’m headed back to the apartment for an evening of reading and writing. After standing in the rain, trying to hail a taxi, an empty one finally pulls over. At first I think it’s going to swerve and crash into the curb as the car lurches quickly to the side to stop. Traveling through traffic, the driver tells me about the rain and how he thinks it’s going to start again in the evening, of how the Pacific Coast is getting hit by storms, of how people are getting ready to head to the coast despite the rain, of how in Acapulco you can literally lose your head. Then there is silence for a long while as we move slowly down the avenida. I watch the passing shops, the people on the street, the march of umbrellas. After a long silence, the small, old, taxi driver with wisps of white hair, and who leans close to the steering wheel that he can barely see over, says, “It’s getting dark, boss.”
10. [Ankara] Standing at a bus stop on a cool fall evening, I’m reminded of my first trip to Ankara when I came to participate in a conference at Hacettepe University. One night, a couple of colleagues and I decided to not take the conference shuttle back to the hotel and we hopped on a campus bus instead. The bus was crowded and while shuffling around, some students who heard me speaking English, started talking to me in Turkish, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to respond. A couple of other students came to my aid and soon we all started laughing and joking together. We ended up all going out together to eat and drink. It was great. Tonight, standing at the bus stop at Bilkent, some students talked to me briefly, but I didn’t get too involved as I already had plans. A couple nodded to me as they went to find rides to town, and I put on my headphones, listened to Zoé, and waited under a tree for a friend.
11. [Mexico City] Sitting in this new generic airport hotel —designed, no doubt, for the accidental tourist, the ones who hate to travel so they only seek out the same level of comfort that they have at home but in the end that level comfort becomes generic— reading Alberto Fuguet’s excellent defense of non-places that is included in his book Cinépata —and though I have it in book form, I’m reading it on my Kindle— while the great city of Mexico City waits outside—my view looks out onto the street (of stores, of tiny diners, of people) and not onto the central courtyard of this hotel—, I remember a conversation I had years ago with a friend in Barcelona. Over cañas he told me about how he had been happy to live in Barcelona but that he couldn’t wait to get back to Mexico City. For him, it was a city of extraordinary incidents that were not viewed as extraordinary but rather as somehow normal: just another part of life in Mexico City. Things like: a trumpet player playing on a quiet street of closed shops and diners, a mime dressed all in black walking down a dark street in the middle of the night and only his white painted face standing out, a chicken wandering undisturbed around the colonial streets of the city center. I think it’s time to go for a walk.
12. [Travel] The things that turn up when looking for something: expired passports; a key envelope of a hotel where I spent a 5 days in Ankara back in 2008; an old notebook with notes for early versions of my novel (sections no longer in the book) from 2003, airline and train boarding passes, someone’s cell number on a scrap of paper; a boarding pass for a flight from Guadalajara to Houston; and a postcard for a performance by Gómez Peña in Barcelona. Objects from my last decade of travel.