Wednesday, December 19, 2012

DISC 30 Istanbul (18 December)

The 2012 DISC campaign came to an end in Istanbul.  It was the second DISC in 3 days with a long day of travel in between to get from Saudi Arabia to Turkey.  My handler was the very capable Serhan Goren (quiet independent geophysicist with his patented seismic source in the trunk of his car, always ready for action).  The venue was the University of Istanbul engineering lecture hall, very good setup.  It was interesting that a couple of the guys had already seen my post about the Dammam airport passport delay and were chuckling about it.  Guess someone does read this blog.

The plan was for 8am start, but we drifted a bit. The room was not open and we had to track down a key, folks drifted in due to heavy traffic, tea break was leisurely, lunch a bit protracted (and very good), then more tea.  We had 18 in attendance, many of them students. In the end, we finished on time with little loss of material and enthusiastic book signing afterward.  Thank you Serhan and all the rest for a pleasant last DISC.

With the final DISC I want to thank again Tad Smith,  Ken Larner,  Rowena Mills,  Jenny Cole,  Jill Abbott, and Yogaani Bhatia.  A great team of people to whom I am deeply indebted.  And finally I offer humble gratitude to my long-suffering wife Dolores.  Above and beyond the call of duty.

DISC venue was the University of Istanbul

Serhan Goren helping offload my DISC equipment

Zoom view reveals Serhan's seismic source carefully wrapped in brown tape

Mascot Niffy suffered through this long trip, a real trooper

Action photo.  For symmetry, the outfit is that worn at DISC 1 in Brisbane.

Niffy fan club, Istanbul branch.

2012 DISC class of Istanbul

Have I really done this 30 times?

Last Supper (18 Dec)

Damn this key.  But it is not really a key, that is most of the problem.  A key is a chunk of metal that goes into a little hole in the door, you turn it, the door unlocks.  This key is a smart card with a chip that could fly a fighter jet, but not open my hotel room door.  I was still in full battle gear -- black jacket, New Zealand black tie, striped shirt, and Prince of Wales slacks -- and the ubiquitous rolling travel bag in tow full of computer equipment, cables, and an alarming collection of international power plugs.  It weighed about 60 pounds.  I tried the door card several times, no luck.  After a glass of wine in the lobby and catching up on email, I was too damn tired to think about sitting someplace to eat.  The 'Roll and Rock' place in the lobby is loud, empty, and soulless.  Better to gnaw on free fruit in the room.

That would have to wait while I trudged back down 15 floors to get a new key.  A guy got on the elevator as I headed back up.  A local, but decked out in a classy tuxedo.  He was headed for the 26th floor.  I asked about the rooftop restaurant and he said (in pretty good English) something about going to 26, switching elevators, then on up to the top.  My face must have been telling a story when I hesitated at the 15th floor.  He gently took the trolly handle from my hand and we whisked up to the top.  He stowed the trolley, showed me a menu and suggested I look around.

It was plush and loungey, in a Perry Como or Dean Martin sort of way.  Suddenly I did not feel overdressed.  Easy Christmas songs played at the right volume, an oak bar glittered of brass and clean cocktail glasses.  The light was subtle, nothing overhead, nothing in your eyes.  The staff are pros, moving around the room with assured purpose, not the frantic, bustling pace of a blaring neon sports bar. 

A table by the window would do nicely.  I sat down, ordered a glass of wine, and started to look over the menu.  The guy from the elevator took care of me.  The seat was 300 ft above Istanbul looking over a main highway, high rise apartments farther out, then to the wine dark sea.  A bus terminal was directly below.  It was one end of dedicated line that ran 50 kilometers between 5 lanes of traffic on each side.  Each stop had an overpass that took riders either way into the neighborhoods.  A good system, I heard it was copied from something in the Netherlands.  The US could do that with interstate medians in lots of major cities, put the property to good use.  The busses pulled up en echelon waiting their turn, precise, patient.  This was a damned efficient system.

The onion soup was very good, but could have used more soup and less onion.  As the busses rolled my thoughts went back to a golf match with Tad Smith in Houston nearly three years earlier (but it felt like a lifetime ago).  That was when he suggested the DISC, on the tee box of a hard par 4 as I recall.  Then came a year of thinking, procrastinating, false starts, and lingering doubt.  Then a plunge at full force.  That's the way I work.  As the book took shape other issues began to pop up.  An unlikely job opportunity was applied for at U Arkansas.  Then I stepped in as associate department chairman at U Houston, in line to be chairman after a brawl flared up between the Dean and previous chairman.  

The main course was a beautiful seafood linguine, delicate and lightly sauced.  European style, not the goopy American way. The wine was a local red and not bad at all, it went well with the linguine.  The buses carried on their ballet and I was remembering a March trip to New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and Japan.  Dolores made the trip and it seemed like the honeymoon we never quite got to take.  We discovered Narita together, immaculate, majestic, mystical.  Then came a day last spring when U Ark made an offer and I had to step in to the Dean's office to report I would be moving down the road.

When the food was ordered I said something about check with me about desert.  The main food was enough and I asked for the check, but translations out here don't always convey the message.  The creme brûlée showed up and I was out of wine.  This is an important day.  Bring on a small Cointreau. Far below the lights of Istanbul twinkled like galaxy close enough to touch.

With the dessert came a flood of memories crashing toward the present; a house listed for sale, cats relocated to Tulsa for house showing, Dolores managing three dogs and keeping the house hotel-ready with me jaunting all over the world.  Thank god we had Narita before the chaos set in. Then a grand and amazing house find in Arkansas, managing the deal, the Houston house gets an offer that drags on for months, both deals close, workmen swarm the new house as I jet off for India the Middle East and Istanbul.  Final worldwide head count for the DISC is 1452, 30 presentations, 240 hours of talking.

The bottom of the Cointreau glass is the end of my strength.  Time to crawl back, peel off some clothes, and find some sleep.  It is done.

About Town (19 December)

Well I thought it was done. I'm pretty sure the Turkmen tried to kill me. It started innocent enough. Serhan showed up at 10am for a day of rest and relaxation touring Istanbul. The plan was modest, hook up with Mehmet (geophysicist and professional tour guide) to see Hagia Sophia and the central bazaar then back to the hotel early. I needed pack for early departure the next morning. Apparently I was the only one briefed on the plan.

The day was gray with ragged clouds moving low over the hills, a wind blew cold off the Bosphorus. Five minutes in the car and we are headed down back streets to pick up Mehmet, or so I thought. Instead we pick up Professor Ali Oncel of Istanbul University. A lively thoughtful man in his forties with a quick infectious smile. Clearly an old friend of Serhan, Ali is department chairman and president of the Istanbul geophysical society. He says we are going to tour the university. He knows the Rector (top man, like chancellor at a US school). Oh, an by the way, could I give a talk tonight for the local geophysical society? They have a regular speaker and could work me in at 7.

The plan is warping out of control and I make some funny noises that sound like English but mean nothing. After recovering, I tell him the talk is ok. Gret, what is your title? Another shock. I come up with something and Ali sends an email. Five minutes later he shows me his phone with the announcement going out all over the city. When I mentioned I'll need some time back at the hotel to prepare slides, there is a long discussion between them in Turkish. It seems my hotel is on one side of town, the university/tour/talk is on the other side. This is the 7th largest city in the world. So a timeline is formulated (by them) that leaves no room for error, a tighter schedule than the German rail system.

We arrive at the university, pass like VIPs through guarded gates to park in a courtyard. Mehmet is there. We take a look in the building surrounding the courtyard, a massive three-story place teeming with students in vast cavernous hallways. Ali says this is where he took a physics lecture class as an undergraduate. Would I like to see the the room? Sure. He had to negotiate us past guards and workers since there is to be a Rector election tomorrow (happens every 4 years in this university of 70000 students founded in 1523). We step into a lecture hall that dwarfs any I have seen. A physics class here? Really? Einstein's Nobel Prize speech had a smaller room.

The physics lecture hall (note balcony seats)

A ten minute walk takes us through the famous university gate and into the main quad, a large forested garden. Our aim now is the famous (is everything famous?) Beyazıt stone tower built in 1828. Not open to the public, Ali has used some clout to get us in. About 260 feet high and narrow as a little lighthouse, the 500 or so irregular wooden steps spiral up around a central mast that could have come from a old frigate ship. Ali is the first to start puffing as we wind up into darkness, automatic lights switching on way too slow. The definition of claustrophobia, this place can never be open to the public. A rescue operation halfway up would be impossible, better to just give the poor victim a light shove and stand back while he tumbles to the bottom.

The tower

Me, Professor Ali, and Serhan up in the rafters of the tower

But the main landing was worth every step. A 360 view of old Istanbul, the vast Blue Mosque in full splendor nearby with Hagia Sophia and the Bosphorus in the distance. Working wooden windows opened in all directions. Strangely, the landing was full of wires and electronic equipment cabinets, I suppose to handle exterior lights, interior sensor lights, and whatever else was plumbed into this thing. Upper levels meant ever narrower, steeper steps, more electronics crammed in smaller spaces. Maybe this is what it felt like to be in the capsule of Apollo 13. Down the endless spiraling steps we emerged dizzy and headed for the Rector's building.

View from the tower across the Bosphorus from Europe to Asia

The Rector himself was too busy for an audience, even Ali's wasta has limits. The building was originally for the war office and dates from the late 1930s. Blocky and monolithic, it did not have much curb appeal. Inside was a Greco-Roman feels with marble columns, 20 foot ceiling, and a covered central courtyard stretching up three floor to a vast stained glass roof. More marble formed massive curved staircases with heavy oak banisters.

Ali could get us past layers of guards to the second floor, somehow Mehmet knew the way to a room off-limits to mere mortals. A long animated Turkish discussion with officials resulted in a guard ushering our group into an amazing room. Hardwood floors grown dark and rich with the decades presided beneath a crystal chandelier that would shame the Titanic along with walls and lofty ceiling, every inch hand painted. A tad worn (and undergoing restoration) the effect still inspired awe. At regular intervals on the ceiling were large, detailed paintings of country houses, ragged sea costs, and many-masted ships. We roamed three such rooms and one got the feeling there were many more. The Rector still could not see us (tomorrow's election took priority), but Ali got us into the outer office housing two secretaries at large oak desks in a room even more ornate and maybe 60 feet across. One secretary lead us to the Rector's audience room of similar size and style, a place where one should meet a Rector. It was a blur from there, some rooms under renovation, meeting the restoration manager, his outer office (2 more secretaries at big desks), and a 'PhD examination' hall complete with raised stage and podium. I imagine a student could get a real grilling in such a formal room. I was getting worried about the time, still a lot to do. Maybe we can skip lunch to get in extra touring.

Mehmet in the Rector's audience room

One of the fine ceiling paintings

The PhD examination room

Ali walked us across the quad to the faculty club for lunch, so much for that idea. But was an elegant and lovely meal. Desert was spiced pumpkin, quite tasty. A bit after 1pm our grand university tour was complete. Ali and Serhan had places to be, so Mehmet and I headed for the bus. The bus system is very well done, more like metro trains on dedicated tracks. In fact the main line is called Metro Bus. We took two busses then had a short walk in deepening cold to Hagia Sophia ('holy wisdom' in Greek). This is a church first built in 360AD, but destroyed by fire and earthquake. The current structure is from 560AD and it is remarkable. The largest church in the world for nearly a 1000 years, the main feature is a truly vast dome enclosing a broad indoor courtyard. Unlike the later cathedrals of Europe held up by a dense forest of columns, Sophia's court is open and free of columns. An engineering marvel. Ottoman rule came in 1523 and Sophia was retooled as a Mosque. Column capitals were curved to Islamic patterns, mosaics removed (except one area on the balcony level), small free-standing mosque areas were added to the interior, and today large wooden roundels of arabic writing hang around the ancient nave of Constantine. I suppose every culture tears down or reuses what came before. To their credit, the Ottomans did not tear it down.

The grand space of Hagia Sophia

This story is getting long, but so was the day. From Sophia Mehmet walked me through the grounds of a fairyland castle, the inside will have to wait for another trip. A short bus ride and walk away, we headed into the grand bazaar. He introduced me to some old school friends with a little restaurant. We had Turkish tea and more spiced pumpkin. It was beginning to feel like I swallowed Halloween.

The bazaar is a rabbit warren of short random lanes, maybe 20 ft wide, and topped by a warmly painted arched stucco roof. The place was clean and in good repair, the hawkers were busy, and not annoyingly persistent. But then I was with Mehmet, a local, and that is essential. After an hour or so it was time to head out. The weather was getting nasty and colder as we made a long walk, took two busses, then another walk to the hotel. I asked Mehmet what is the plan. Five minutes then we go, he replied. It would take longer to explain why that is impossible than it is worth, so I dashed upstairs while he waited.

Spiced pumpkin #2

The fabulous grand bazaar

In the room, I worked pulling slides together from a DISC chapter. Seemed like swimming in molasses, my fingers stiff from the cold, knees stiff from too many stairs, and a sense of resignation that we had to go back across town. It took too long, but I needed to change clothes and wash up a bit, while the presentation file was copying to a thumb drive. This was overbooking even for me (a chronic overbooker). I arrived back in the lobby just as Mehmet had the front desk calling up.

Now bitter cold, I could feel it through everything I owned. Behind schedule, our frantic trek in cold and wind was a walk, two busses, a walk, a metro train, and a walk. Only 10 minutes late, we dove into an innocuous building, through a iron grate security door, up an elevator with no door (not too close, please), and finally into the society office. It was a small place with a few rooms, including one about the size of a small living room. Padded chairs sat in orderly rows facing a big screen TV hooked up to a laptop. On a night like this it seemed the kind of place to find a secret junta of communists or fascists. But here were 25 geophysicists patiently waiting for my learned talk. First was tea with Ali and retired professor Omer Apitekin, a charming man full who, at 72, looked a hell of a lot better than I did. After the talk (which went well), I spoke with the learned Professor for a long while. He said faculty retirement is mandatory at 67, we chatted about the famous Turhan Taner, and he explained that at the technical university (not U Istanbul) classes were taught in English.  That explained a big variation in English I had noticed in Turkish students over the years.

The side lecture attendees (25, more than the DISC!)

Serhan and the three professors

My strength was flagging, but Ali was not through with me yet. Another walk to Serhan's car, then short drive to another faculty club. This one was on the edge of the Bosphorus waterway, with a clear stunning view of 'the second bridge' (there are two and a third being built). These bridges link Asia and Europe. As if to celebrate that fact, our bridge was lit up like a Christmas tree, lights slowly rotating color in the night. My seat was not 10 ft from the water edge through a large window. Serhan told how there is a 1 m elevation difference on the ends of the Bosphorus (east is higher) and how fresh Black Sea water in the east runs at 15 knots over heavier salt water from the west. This makes for wicked currents that have baffled mariners since Jason and the Argonauts went through 3000 years ago. On this cold windy night I could see strange patterns of standing waves, whirlpools, and glass-smooth areas rise and fall in choppy water.

Bridge lights over the Bosphorus

The Turkmen are nearly done with me. Turkish tea and a warm ride to the hotel in Serhan's car. Midnight, and then some. Alarm will sound at 5am. No strength to pack or check in by email. Collapse. Rest. Sleep.

Epilogue (20 December)

Five am came quick. Packed and in the lobby by 5:30. A problem with my Visa card, many tries, not a card problem, phone lines. Gotta go, they write down needed info and Serhan's cell number. We load the car with swirling snow on the ground, it's below freezing, there is a biting wind, and a light rain falls. The roads are treacherous halfway to the airport the streetlights go out. A bit later is a clap of thunder too close to be thunder. A transformer has blown with a raging bright flash. When did the old Maya calendar say the world would end?

But it did not. All is well. Headed home. Thank you, my Turkish friends

Epilogue #2 (21 December)

Again, I thought it was over.  But like Odysseus of old, the fickle gods were not done with me.  Arrival in Chicago, flip on the phone, and find an email from the airline that I have been rescheduled to a 3:40pm flight to NW Arkansas.  Time I get through customs and to the airline desk we are way past that time.  Turns out a blizzard is headed for Chicago, even though it is well above freezing now and raining.  But the airport is shutting down hundreds of flights as a pre-emptive measure.  My new flight, I am told, was for the next day... a 24 hour wait in Chicago!  But that flight is not guaranteed, it could be another day, or two.

I was sick of airports and hotels, so I decide to make a run for it.  I get on my phone, book a rent car one way, and am in it driving out of the airport 30 min later.  Chicago to NW Ark is a 10 hour drive in good weather, 650 miles.  But this is not good weather.  The iPhone navigates me through suburban Chicago on toll roads.  At one point, I make a wrong turn (my fault) and go through an exit booth that requires 90 cents toll.  Luckily I had it from two earlier tolls that generated some change.  A quick u-turn has me headed back onto the toll road, again through a booth, with no attendant, several hundred yards down a one-way ramp, that requires 90 cents, and I don't have it.  I pull over to contemplate my options in a worsening gale.  With no viable option, I run it, disappearing from the gate's bubble of light into the snowy night.  The prison guards should find that amusing.

I get an hour south of Chicago and heavy snow kicks up, winds howl at 50 mph, ice is forming, it is dark and getting darker.  I pull in to Odell, Illinois to a small gasoline station.  As I get out of the car, a four-wheel-drive truck pulls up with two mountain men.  They are kitted like characters in a science fiction set in Antarctica; mukluk boots, gloves, thick sock hats, and arctic parkas with yak fur trim.  They go in to the shop ahead of me, after looking me over.  I was in penny loafer shoes, khaki pants, a tee shirt, and light cardigan sweater.  My outfit was better suited to dinner on the beach in Grand Cayman.  The shop keeping said there were no hotels in Odell, I needed to go 10 miles down the road.

I slipped and slided back to the interstate highway, made it a couple of miles, and traffic ground to a halt.   Surrounded by big rig trucks, it was an hour before the jack-knifed truck ahead could be cleared. Weather worsened, a real white-out blizzard that whistled icy knives of wind though every crack in my subcompact.  I have been in bigger go carts.  By 9:30pm the temperature was well below freezing and dropping fast.  When the road finally clears I know it could take 8 hours to go the next 8 miles.  I crawl to the nearest hotel and (thankfully) get a room.  Let the highway department snow plows and salt trucks work it all night.

Up at 5am (again) and hit the road.  Snow and ice in Illinois then cold and clearing pavement in Missouri. This time of year the sun never seems to get 10 feet above the horizon, it streamed in the window like the eye of an angry, mocking cyclopes.  Somehow the engineering team that designed my subcompact did not see fit to allow the sun visor to block it.  To avoid the bitter irony of driving through a blizzard and showing up with a sunburn, I had to cock my baseball hat over the left side of my face.  Like a deranged middle-age rapper, I drove on through the hill country of Missouri.  Across the Arkansas border, they were playing golf (no kidding).  An easy drive from there to the airport, drop the car, and a taxi home.

No comment

My thoughts in the taxi go back and replay the last six days.  It looks like this: 8 hour lecture, 10 hour air travel, 8 hour lecture, 14 hour foot tour of Istanbul, 24 hour plane travel to Chicago, 11 hour drive to Arkansas.  That's it, I am finally home, the DISC year is really over.  I swear.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

It was a pleasure meeting you and attending your DISC at Khobar. But the real treat is your blog and especially that one in Istanbul when you went out with your 2 friends for a tour:-)

Wishing you and your family a great 2013,

Abdullatif Al-Shuhail