Kediler ve Köpekler (Cats and Dogs…)

I am not a cat person. Or, at least, I have spent most of my life professing not to be a cat person.

This is, in part, because I’m basically deathly allergic to cats. Within minutes of coming in contact with them my eyes start itching, I sneeze uncontrollably, and, most troubling of all, it becomes difficult to breathe. As a result, I have become pretty good at avoiding cats over the years.

However, Turkey is testing my cat avoidance resolve because, well, you just can’t avoid them. Around every corner in Istanbul you are likely to run into a cat – or several cats. Most are wild – although I hesitate to say “feral” since they are fed and cared for by pretty much everyone – and no one in particular.

There are wild dogs too – though they are HUGE and intimidating, and don’t lend themselves to “petting” and fawning over. Some of them seem friendly enough, and most just ignore me as I walk past them, but I’ve had a couple of encounters where I’ve been barked at by a street dog, and, on one occasion, I unexpectedly came face to face with an entire pack (ok, well, maybe 5 dogs…) coming out of some brush as I walked up a road. They left me alone, but I’m not going to lie when I say it took a lot of effort not to high-tail it in the opposite direction.

My observation is that the cats are better treated than the dogs, but overall they are all treated well given that they don’t belong to anyone. Mahatma Ghandi once allegedly said that the “greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” and if that is true, then Turkey can be judged pretty highly. All along the streets – both main thoroughfares and alleyways – you see bowls filled with fresh water and small piles of food. Feeding the animals from your table at a restaurant does not seem to be frowned upon and old ladies in the street always look at me fondly when I speak to the cats as I’m walking to and from work.

What’s amazing is that it is not just food and water that are provided. There are cat beds and dog houses in front of the grocery store and in nooks and crannies throughout the city. Cats lounge on the chairs set outside for guests at restaurants – and even those that are for sale outside of our local hardware store. Rather than shoo them away, people stop and pet them and offer them treats. And on our taxi rides around the city I’ve noticed that there is usually at least one ginormous dog sleeping peacefully in the middle of every sidewalk (or sometimes the middle of the street). We’ve also been told that vets do not charge to spay/neuter or take care of injured street cats, which is pretty remarkable to me.

The legends of why cats rule Istanbul (cause basically they do) are varied. One claims that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, would return as a cat. However, since no one knows which cat, they must all taken care of and well treated. Another story holds that Atatürk said “his successor would be bitten on the ankle by an odd-eyed white cat,” so everyone is on the lookout for a crazy looking white cat.

Ataturk?

In Islamic culture cats are also highly regarded and are the only animal allowed to enter the Great Mosque of Mecca. The Prophet Muhammad, in particular, was said to be very fond of cats and, by one account, opted to cut off one of his sleeves so he could rise from his prayers, rather than disturb a cat that had fallen asleep on his robe while he was praying. Another story claims that Muhammad was saved from a snake attack by cat, and that, as a reward, he blessed cats with the ability to always land on their feet. Then again, it may just be that cats keep to themselves and kill rats and mice – a pretty decent reason to keep them around a city with 15 million people.

Even our very private, very enclosed apartment complex can’t avoid Istanbul’s “kedi” life.

When we first arrived there were three kittens (the mother was around, but very good at hiding when anyone came to call) that the children on the complex basically adopted. The kittens were all given names (Ash, Scotch and Bandit) and there were daily excursions to visit them. One of the families took it upon themselves to take all three for shots and to get them bathed/treated for fleas.

As is my habit, I avoided them as much as possible for several weeks. Then one day I met a friend of mine at the “adults only” pool (which sounds much more risqué than it is – it’s really just the quiet pool without screaming children) and one of them, Ash, came and sat in my lap.

I didn’t realize until I sat there, with this sweet, soft, purring kitten in my lap how much I missed the companionship of an animal. The quiet, uncomplicated, unconditional love – even just for that moment – that they give.

This is the first time, in almost my entire life, that I’ve been without an animal. It’s hard to believe but we’re coming up on a year since Miller died, and we’ve vowed not to get a new dog until we finish our tour here. Thinking about that empty place in our lives, in that moment, sitting in the sunshine with that happy kitten in my lap, I wanted to scoop him up and take him back to our apartment and figure out a way to make that feeling last – without the accompanying wheezing and sneezing.

And then, two days later, as I was continuing to work through the logistics of how I could convince B, and not die in the process, the kittens were gone. Their carry case, their bowls and them – gone.

I asked the guard at the gate what happened to them and he told me that some people in the complex don’t like the cats, so they had them taken to a local park. Given that this is Turkey and there a 15 million (minus apparently some scrooge in my apartment complex) cat loving inhabitants in Istanbul I truly believe that the kittens really are in a park as opposed to this being the Turkish equivalent of “we sent the dog to live on a nice farm…” But I have been unexpectedly sad about their departure.

On my many walks around the neighborhood in the last couple of weeks, I’ve insisted on popping into all the local parks and gardens to see if I could find the kittens and confirm they are ok, but so far I haven’t had any luck. Hopefully, someone else is enjoying their cuddles and treating them as Mohammed would have treated them. In the meantime, we found some other cute kittens to love on our adventures this weekend. Only time will tell whether my allergies (and B) win out, or whether we’ll have a kedi in tow when we leave Istanbul in 2023.

By the way, if you want to learn more about the cats – and dogs – of Istanbul – check out these films.

The Heart of Darkness

Admit it. Heart of Darkness is what first comes to mind when you think about the Congo.  It is the first thing many people say to me when I tell them that we are moving to Congo in July.  “Yikes,” they say. “The Heart of Darkness.”

Heart of Darkness was published in 1899 and, while some things may not have changed (the Congo is still “a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land”), we are not moving to the Congo of Conrad’s time, any more than D.C. is similar to its former self, or, if you moved to Charlotte you’d find a city of 7,084 people that looked like this:

Charlotte 1899

To be sure, Kinshasa is also not a first world metropolitan city, but it may not be what most people are expecting when we tell them where we are going either.  Obviously even I was not very well informed when we first learned we were going to DRC – I called it “West Africa  (home of war torn strife and ebola).”

So, first, it’s not West Africa – it’s actually Central Africa.  Second, while ebola the disease got its name from Ebola the river, which is a tributary of the Congo River and is located in the DRC, it turns out that the disease actually began miles from the Ebola River, and, in the current outbreak that dominates the news, no cases of the disease have been identified in DRC.  There have been plenty of prior outbreaks in the DRC, but most were in rural areas and, from what we’ve read, the population understands Ebola better than in many other African countries and treats preventative measures seriously.  As of today this is what the ebola outbreak looks like in Africa:

no ebola

Our new home is approximately 7 hours – by plane – from this area.  Don’t worry, a trip to Liberia is not on our “Bucket List for Africa.”

What is on the bucket list? We’re not sure yet.  But there are a lot of options.  There is even an entire blog with a list (or several) of things to do in DRC and Kinshasa.  We’ll take our time getting adjusted, but we’ll also enjoy our time in Congo – that’s part of the point of this adventure, right?

When I have travelled in the past, I have always been sad that I couldn’t really immerse myself in any culture in a week, or two, or even three.  But now I have two years.  Two years to learn more about the Democratic Republic of the Congo than I ever thought I’d know. It’s crazy, but exciting.

One other thing I’ve learned in the last few weeks is that we won’t be taking any “weekend” trips to other places in Africa (beyond Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of the Congo, which is right across the Congo River from Kinshasa).  I knew Africa was big, but the sheer enormity of this continent is a little mind boggling.

real-size-of-africa

Crazy, eh? If you take out China and Japan you can add Canada to the list to the left instead (at 9.985 km squared).  That means that the entirety of North America fits into Africa, along with a good portion of Europe, as well as India and several other countries.

My parents want to meet us in Cape Town – it’s an eight hour flight.  Farther than flying from D.C. to London.  Farther than flying from D.C. to Denver AND back.   Our friends J and B are moving to Agadir, Morocco.  To visit them it would be a 10 hour flight – I could go to L.A. and back from D.C. in the same amount of time.  And that doesn’t take into account the fact that there is no such thing as a flight from Kinshasa to Agadir.  To fly there we would have to fly from Kinshasa to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (yes, for those who are familiar with a map of Africa that is on the other side of the continent from Kinshasa and Morocco), then to Cairo, then to Casablanca and then to Agadir.  That is the fastest way – it would take over 24 hours of traveling.

One of my friends wondered if we could drive instead.  It’s impossible to say – since there are no passable roads that stretch between Kinshasa and Agadir.  Of course, even if there were it would be literally days of driving.  Given this image though it may be worth it…

Agadir

The bottom line is that I’m really hoping we get to explore other places in Africa while we’re there on this tour, but I’m definitely learning that I need to manage my expectations.  Still, while the world is a big place, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Well…How did I get here?

As I’ve told people our news a number of them have asked me what made B want to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, so I thought I’d share that story here as well.

If I had to guess, when B and I met at a little pub on 5th Street in 2006, he could never have imagined that 8 years later the two of us (and C; oh, and Miller the dog) would be packing up, leaving Charlotte and heading to an as yet unknown foreign city to serve our country.  He had just bought a house, and a puppy (which he used shamelessly to entice me into accepting a first date), and, I’m pretty sure, imagined his life proceeding in the typical dating, marriage, kids fashion.

And, I’ll admit that, while I’ve always had some wanderlust – and had no dog and a house I’d been in for 6 years – I also saw my life proceeding forward in Charlotte – even if not in the typical fashion.

Then, for Labor Day 2006 I invited B to come with me to Mexico City to visit my friend J, her husband N, and their new baby, B.  With us were two of my best girlfriends from law school, who, along with J, formed a multi-sided place where I, to this day, go to get the very power that often sustains me = Girl Power. J was an FSO, in the middle of her second tour at the embassy in Mexico City.

So we went to Mexico City and visited J & N in their fabulous condo supplied by the USG, we ate wonderful food (and drank wonderful drink), we toured the Mexican Embassy, we visited the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico’s home (at the time he was married to the heiress of Modelo, so their home was, uh, quite nice) and actually met him and shook his hand.  To say that this was pretty cool is an understatement.

IMG_1018

Then we managed to top even that and the seven of us (four women and three men, we left Baby B at home) drove to Acapulco and rented a house for 4 days.  It was, as they say, the bombdiggity. We had a wonderful chef at the house and a young man who brought us drinks by the pool as we lounged.  Let’s just say this, too, did not suck

IMG_1068 IMG_1072

 

 

 

 

 

 

During this trip B talked a lot to J & N; he asked them a lot of questions about their lives, how they had gotten interested in the FS, and what had led them to Mexico.  And, while no one was under any illusion that the way we lived in Acapulco was in any way the way an FSO typically lives, the prospect of visiting and living in these amazing places got under B’s skin.

I didn’t have enough interest in the overall workings of the State Department and foreign policy (especially given that I was, at that time, not even a U.S. Citizen) for it to peak my interest the way it peaked B’s, but I’ve always had an interest in adventure, so I have been, and still am, B’s biggest supporter in making the dream that was born in Mexico a reality.

J and N have amazing careers in the FS – and I can only hope we get as lucky as they have been in that respect.  This is a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’m so grateful that we have them (and our friend P) to help us along the way.

And we may find ourselves in another part of the world…