April 15, 2008

Amman, Jordan
30 Miles to Jerusalem

Can you even call a 17 hour layover a layover? That's long enough that you really have to consider putting down roots.

At Turkish passport control, I was in line with 50 middle-aged Russian women. They are much better at waiting in line than me. They seemed to glide past while I was standing still. Are the rules of line-waiting different in Russia? I always found them to be basic and immutable.

Clearly, none of these women are poor. One does not have initials embroidered across one's handbag unless one has money to burn. Their glitter red alligator print jackets identify them as aristocrats. Someone had to go out into the jungle and hunt down those glitter red alligators, you know? That doesn't come cheap.

Am I missing something about Duty Free? What's the big deal? Who are the raging alcoholics who need to save a buck on Chivas Regal?

Obviously, I had a lot of time on my hands. One good thing about Istanbul's airport, and really the only thing that ever matters: free wi-fi. I finished up a project I've been working on for a while. I put every place I've ever been into Google Earth.


It has all my travel dates, loads of pictures, and links to journal entries.

I haven't worked out how to put a link on my map page yet that will open straight into Google Earth, so for now, just right click (or whatever you mac people do) on this link and save the target file, then open it in Google Earth. If that doesn't work for you...give me a week or two to sort it out.

There are some typos and little things here and there that aren't quite how I'd like them, but that's just life, isn't it? The more important flaw -- and believe me, I'm well aware -- is that this isn't actually interesting to anyone but myself. It's too much information and it's too fiddly.

My next goal is to boil it down into something friendlier and more presentable: a map of all the places I've ever shot a dancing clip. I plan to attach an image from each scene to the markers as well as a short blurb about how it was shot. It'll be sort of like a coffee table book, except not a book and you won't be able to put it on a coffee table.

Midnight flight into Jordan. Anyone ever sat in a plane seat with those fold-down foot rest bars? They're amazing. If you're over 5'8", they serve no purpose, cause you're legs are too long to actually rest on them. And in their folded-up state, they sit at just the right height to scrape against your shin bone through the entire flight. What a marvelous addition to the air travel experience!

Someone must have packed a container of jam in the luggage directly on top of mine. It exploded at altitude and leaked all over my bag. When I picked it up off the carousel, I got a nice surprise: hands covered in sticky, purple goop.

I don't know why I took this picture.


After two consecutive overnight flights and 48 hours without a bed, I decided to treat myself to a Day's Inn. I booked on Expedia from the airport. Checking in at 3am is rarely a good idea, so I hung out in baggage claim until dawn, way too exhausted to fall asleep.

When I showed up at the hotel, they had no record of my booking, which I'd already paid for online. I told them I booked on Expedia. They said it must be a "fake" site because it didn't appear in their records. The guy looked at my bloodshot eyes, though, and I guess took some pity on me. He put me up in a room and said we'd straighten it out later.

I smelled so bad, I couldn't go straight to sleep. Instead, I slid into the tub and promptly fainted. The tub was too small for me, so my legs were pressed up against the bathroom wall. When I came to, my legs had been like that for over an hour. If I'd just fallen asleep normally, the awkward position would have woken me up, but I evidently passed out. When I tried to get up, I found I couldn't move my legs. I had to crawl across the room to get into bed.

What I'm trying to say here is: the last couple days haven't been terribly thrilling.

I've got two full days left in Jordan and I'm going to try to make an adventure of it. I'm thinking of heading down to Wadi Rum and seeing what I can see. I hope to find some Bedouins who will dance with me.

Looking at the map, I realize I'm about 30 miles from Jerusalem. I was there less than two months ago shooting a commercial for an Israeli travel agency. It's 30 miles, but it feels like a thousand. I had a similar experience in Kuwait, looking out to Iran and Iraq only a few miles off the coast. Geography cedes to politics here. Tiny distances separate discrete worlds. And the dividing lines have been moving around for as long as civilization.

Of course this region is in constant turmoil. It's not about religion. It's not about oil. It's about pressure differentials. Weather patterns. It's thermodynamics, friends. Thermodynamics!

April 10, 2008

Istanbul, Turkey
Two Y's, a K, and a Z

There's a Turkish man behind me who resembles a hairy lump of coal. He's watching videos on his laptop of men with high-caliber machine guns shredding target dummies. He is chuckling with glee about this. He is as happy as a clam.

Why do all the flights around here leave in the middle of the night? 2:15am? What kind of a time is that? Who does that work for? If we were flying across the planet, sure, but I keep getting stuck on these restless little hops.

Got a row to myself in the back of the plane, though. Slept like the dead. I've had good luck with that on this trip.

I've got a 12 hour layover in Istanbul before my flight to Kyrgyzstan. I already got a good clip in Turkey a little over a year ago. It was the first one for this new video, a happy byproduct of a commercial for a Swedish travel agency. In any case, I don't feel obligated to hunt down another one while I'm here. I'm content, instead, to catch up on sleep and email.

Both my arriving and departing flights are on Turkish Airlines, so they were nice enough to offer me a free hotel room during my layover. This gave me joy beyond words, until I was led past the airport hotel, out into a bus with 30 other men.

The bus took us out of the airport, into the city, right past the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the Grand Bazaar, the Obelisk of Theodosius. I watched the Novotel go by, then the Hotel Ibis, the Holiday Inn, and a dozen other perfectly reasonable options. After a 45 minute ride, we wound up at the All Seasons Hotel.


The All Seasons seems very proud of its four star rating. I am left to wonder: four out of how many?

I did not need to see Turkey again. No offense, Turkey, but I was here in 2006 and again in 2007. I'm full of Turkey.

I am going Kyrgyzstan for a number of silly reasons. One is because I've never gotten an email from there. 25,000 messages and not a single one that I'm aware of from a Kyrgyz. I have a biological defect that draws me to such places.

Of course, I don't get much email from any of the 'stans, so why Kyrgyzstan? Well, there are seven 'stans. Pakistan is high up on my list, but it just never seems like a good time to go.

Afghanistan? While I cultivate the appearance of intrepidity, I do have limits.

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is an obvious punch line with some intriguing history to boot. I came close to putting it on the itinerary, but it requires a visa in advance and my short breaks between trips don't allow much time to circulate a passport.

Of the four remaining 'stans, I, like most of the world, am largely indifferent. Kyrgyzstan got a big boost for being the only one that furnishes visas on arrival without prior application. You might call it the friendly 'stan. It also has an enormous Scrabble point value. So Kyrgyzstan it is.

After making this decision, I was disappointed to learn that Turkmenistan has a really nifty place called the Burning Gates. It's basically an active volcanic sink hole that vividly resembles an entry point into hell. Oh, well.

The thought never occurred to me that Kyrgyzstan might be anything like Borat's fictional version of neighboring Kazakhstan. On reading up a bit, I'm stunned by how EXACTLY it sounds like it.

The most popular traditional sport is called kok boru. It involves a bunch of men on horseback hurling a decapitated goat into a circle. You might recall Sylvester Stallone's swift mastery of the Afghani version, buzkashi, in Rambo III.

The traditional way of courting brides, still popular in rural Kyrgyzstan, is through kidnapping. Modern suitors will approach bachelorettes on the street and shove them into waiting cars. The bride's parents are expected to give their blessing if properly consulted...or so I've read.

From the budget accommodation section of Lonely Planet:

Sabyrbek's B&B
Sabyrbek offers beds and meals in his ramshackle house. Everyone shares a single shower. The cat is called Nicole Kidman and the dog bites. Unfortunately Sabyrbek's brothers like a drink -- and they don't do it alone. Look for an unmarked gate opposite the German embassy.

March 25, 2007

Seattle, Washington

Just gonna run through this quickly, for posterity.

We arrived back in Istanbul for the second day of the Swedish travel agency commercial shoot. My luggage was waiting for me in the hotel when I woke up. I was finally able to improve my odor.

Was taken to an old mosque on the shores of the Bosporus with a large, open plaza at the base. We sat in a café and ate breakfast while 50 Turkish men donned traditional folk dancing costumes around the corner.


When they were ready, they were led out into the plaza and taught how to perform my dance.

Teaching 50 Turkish men who didn’t really get what was going on how to mimic my bad dancing felt…a little icky. But they were game.

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We shot a number of clips of us all dancing together beneath the old mosque. Once we had it, we shot some more clips with them performing their traditional dancing style. I felt much better about that.


Next up, we raced in a caravan to a great hotel sandwiched between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. It has a rooftop restaurant overlooking both sites. The Seven Hills Hotel is the name, I believe. The waiters cleared out all the tables so we had a space to dance.


Patrik, Jonas, and I consulted with Esra, our production manager and translator, as to whether it would be considered offensive to dance in front of either structure.


That's Esra.

We resolved that the Blue Mosque was a potential concern, as it is an active religious site, whereas the Hagia Sophia has been converted into a museum and is, according to Esra, less culturally sensitive.

Hagia Sophia it is.


One of these things is not like the other...


And away we went.

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We danced for a while. Patrik was happy. Everyone cheered and applauded and that was it. The Turkish dancers marched down the stairs and left.

…or so I thought.

Part of their payment for showing up was lunch at one of the fanciest restaurants in Istanbul. I sat down at a corner table to the unbroken stares of 50 large, silent Turks.


That's not a very good picture. All I had on me was my camera phone. My new camera for the Africa trip is in the mail.

I mentioned the staring to Esra. She explained that they were very curious about me; wondering, ‘Who is this strange American and why are we being paid to dance like him?’ She said they wanted to talk to me, but didn’t know any English. I said I’d love to talk to them and asked if she’d translate. Nothing really came of that. I suppose they didn’t know where to start. So they just stared. And I smiled. And we ate.

Patrik, Esra, the rest of the crew and I spent the rest of the afternoon touring around Istanbul collecting clips at a few iconic locations: The Grand Bazaar, an ancient Roman cistern, a beach along the Bosporus.

In the dank cistern, a local approached Esra to ask what was going on.

“Who is this man? What is he doing?” he asked.
“He dances all around the world,” Esra explained. “On the internet.”
“Oh,” he said. “You mean Matt?”

Esra told me about this as we were leaving. It threw me for a loop. Things have changed in the year since I put the last video out. An unsettlingly large and widespread segment of the population is on a first name basis with me. This next trip is going to be…different.

No one’s going to spot me walking down the street, but in the handful of times that I’ve publicly broken out the dance lately, it tends to trigger some recognition.

I imagine this must be strange for people. If you spot Gary Coleman walking down the street, he’s probably not in the process of saying “What you talkin’ about, Willis?” If you run into Alan Greenspan at the grocery store, he’s probably not announcing a drop in interest rates. But if you see me, I’m probably doing the only thing you’ve ever seen me do – even though it’s actually pretty infrequent that I do that thing.

Ah, well. Enough ruminating on the nature of my quasi-fame. I caught a flight back to Seattle. The Swedish folks were nice enough to book me a first class ticket, so sleep was had. I have a week to prepare for Africa. And that’s that.

March 23, 2007

Istanbul, Turkey
Jilted by YouTube, Lost in Turkey

Landed in Istanbul at midnight. Luggage went missing en route. My hard drive with all the raw dancing footage is either in Chicago or London. After 24 hours, the baggage folks in Istanbul have no idea.

Got to the hotel, met Patrik and Jonas, the Swedish commercial guys.


The hotel is fancy and luxurious and there is an enormous transvestite who stands at the corner outside. So there’s that.

Went to bed by 1am. Up at 5am to catch a flight down to Fethiye on the southern coast for a day of bad dancing.

The landing was aborted due to freakish winds that threatened to flip the plane on its side. Esra, our production assistant and translator, made use of the vomit bag.

Instead of landing at Fethiye (in Turkish: "land of the fused eyebrow"), the pilot took us to a safer airstrip in Antalya ("land of the very old ringtones"), three hours away by car. We hired a guy to drive us back, but not before stopping at a local strip mall to re-clothe me. Having no luggage, I'd been wearing the same clothes for about 60 hours. I put together a crude approximation of my dancing uniform, by way of Billabong and Quiksilver.

…at least I didn’t smell so bad.

We drove all afternoon, stopping to set up in front of random patches of the stark Turkish countryside. I danced with a goat. I danced on a boat.

It was cold and rainy and I was tired.

We got to Fethiye with some daylight left. I danced in a set of ancient tombs carved into a mountainside.


There was slippery climbing required, but Patrik and Jonas are experienced mountaineers – must be a Swedish thing – and they helped me up.

By dinner time, whatever auxiliary fuel I was running on ran out. In the lead-up to this trip, I've had a lot of late nights making preparations for the imminent start of the new video. Most of the sleep I've gotten has been in short patches of a couple hours. It finally caught up and I was a corpse on the flight back to Istanbul.

Tomorrow is the big event; a dance with 50 Turkish men on a rooftop overlooking the Hagia Sophia. It’s an odd change being strictly a performer on this Swedish TV commercial thing. I don’t have to plan or orchestrate anything – I just dance where they tell me. It’s been my own weird little personal hobby for so long, I hadn’t considered what it would be like to hand that over. It’s kind of nice, actually. Not for one of my own videos, mind you, but for this side project, it’s okay.

The voting just closed on the YouTube awards. The dancing video was nominated for "Most Creative Video." I was mildly flattered and intrigued when I heard about it a week ago. Then when I learned I was ranking second in the voting, I got a wee bit more interested.

...okay, I’ll cop to checking the polls every chance I got. And I was deliriously happy when the video jumped up to the top spot for a few days. But it dropped back down the day before the voting closed – which was about an hour ago – and I’m pretty sure the award went to Ok Go for their treadmill video.

If it hadn’t been so close, I wouldn’t be disappointed. But seeing it at the top got me excited. The awards are being given out in New York on Monday, and it would’ve been neat to meet the AskaNinja guys, Terra Naomi, and the world’s most adorable puppy.

It also would’ve been neat to kick the Free Hugs guy in the balls.

…man, that guy really needs to get kicked in the balls.

But when I step back a bit – I mean, empirically speaking – the Ok Go video was amazing. The category is called “Most Creative,” and there’s no way I can compete on those terms. As far as that adjective is concerned, there’s no contest. The victory was just. If the category had been "Most Frequent Flyer Miles Earned," then it would be a different story.

So I was down for a bit. But then I remembered the whole awards concept is totally arbitrary and meaningless and I felt a little better.

In fact, I’ll say I’m completely content if the Ok Go guys would go ahead and kick Free Hugs guy in the balls for me.

May 05, 2006

Istanbul, Turkey
Wanted: Charitable Web Geek

As this trip approaches its end, I suddenly realize it's time I get my house in order.

It's not entirely unlikely that this site'll see a surge in visitors about 6 weeks from now. This site which is, at best, charmingly primitive. More likely just primitive.

I wrote most of it by hand in Notepad. Seriously, that's the level I'm at. That it works at all is a small miracle.

I'm looking for someone who knows what they're doing with this stuff and would be willing to lend a bit of their time. Nothing major -- I prefer to keep the site very basic -- just some polish and minor repairs.

The response to my last post took me by surprise (and was much appreciated). I guess there are a few people still following along despite my fractured narrative and navel-gazing tendencies. I'm hoping maybe someone out there can help.

If this isn't your bailiwick, read no further.

I broke my map page about a month ago. I've tried repeatedly to undo whatever I did, but can't seem to fix it.

My journal archives are difficult to penetrate. I'd like to list them by Date, Location, and Title, but all I can manage is Date, which isn't very useful to perusers. I've tried to figure out TypePad's scripting language -- can't make heads or tails of it.

There's other little design stuff, and probably a lot of things I'm doing a dumb way that could easily be redone in a smart way.

If you're the person for the job, please get in touch. If not, nevermind.