- The caress of humidity and the weight of bushy, bushy hair.
- The way the elderly security guard’s curt aloha changes when you catch his eye and say, “Oh, ovah dere? Eh, mahalo, Uncle. I get ‘em now.”
- How his smile now reaches his eyes.
- Breathing after saltwater goes up your nose and finally clears decades of desert from your sinuses.
- The newly sharp scent of everything—plumeria, red dirt, garbage, gecko dust, keawe smoke, laundry soap, and coconut sunscreen slathered on pink skin carrying big Matsumoto’s rainbow shave ice.
- When driving along Kamehameha highway, wave as you slow just enough to let cars merge or turn in front of you because giving them two of your seconds now can literally save hours for others later.
- Quick car beeps are for howzit; long honks are from the mainland.
- Modesty and respect are mindsets and not measured in inches.
- “Where are you from?” and “Where did you go to school?” are the first steps in an intricate how-are-we-related dance.
- ‘Ohana means EVERY TIME you walk past a certain bakery, the owner chases you through the parking lot and gives you loaves of his amazing bread because you are friends with his cousin’s cousin’s friend.
- Nervous tourists constantly approach you with questions because you seem to know things like how to get places, what to order, and where bathrooms are. You have to remind yourself to switch off the Pidgin when you respond.
- It’s “locals,” not Hawaiians, unless they are kanaka maoli.
- Don’t ask cashiers and security guards where’s a good place to eat. Ask them where THEY like to eat. Kalua pork wrapped in luau leaves and cooked in an imu is a thousand times better than in an Instant Pot, crockpot, or oven. Real plate lunches have poi as a side option. Real haupia tastes like coconut, not cornstarch.
- Kids and teachers give you side eye when you first walk through the door. You can almost see the WTF thought balloons over their heads. But five minutes later they are calling you Aunty and laughing. They never ask how to pronounce Lehua or Niuhi. Their burning questions are all about ‘Ilima, the dog who obviously isn’t just a dog.
#homeagain #amwriting #HawaiiStories #OneBoyNoWater
Aloha, Gang! I’m heading home to Oahu for an extended stay, April through May 2021. While I’m planning on research, writing, and relaxing, I’d love to talk story with students, writing groups, bookstores, libraries, or community organizations.
Contact me at AuntyLehua@LehuaParker.com and we’ll find a time we can meet. A hui hou!
I’m fleeing the snowy Utah winter to talk story, teach workshops, and work with some incredible keiki on the Big Island of Hawai’i. So excited! I’ll post some of the students’ work when I get back. (If I come back!)
Feb. 22: Kahakai Elementary, Kailua-Kona
Feb. 25 – Mar. 1: The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au
Feb. 27: Ke Kula ‘o Nāwahīokalaniʻōpuʻu, Kea’au
Feb. 27: ‘Ohana Story Night, The Kamehameha Schools, Kea’au, 5 pm
Mar. 1: Ka ʻUmeke Kāʻeo PCS, Hilo
Mar. 2: Basically Books, Hilo, 1 pm Book Signing
I’m not a gun gal.
Let’s get that straight from the beginning. I don’t conceal carry, although I’ve heard the certification lectures often enough that I could teach the classes. I don’t own a gun. Until last weekend, I’d probably shot a firearm half a dozen times in my life. Someone else always loaded the gun and made sure I didn’t shoot anything I wasn’t willing to destroy.
My husband, however, is a gun guy. That makes our house a gun house. And while he has extensive training and skill—seriously ridiculous amounts in the minds of those who are not Tribe Gun—I have not.
When we got married, the deal was no mounted animals or parts of animals in the house or garage. He agreed as long as I promised never to make spaghetti sauce with mushrooms ever again. He wouldn’t ask me to go on a hunting trip; I wouldn’t make him go to a poetry slam open mike night.
Compromise and communication are how we roll.
After 30+ years of this, I finally decided that it was pretty foolish to be surrounded by guns and ammo and have no idea how to use them—even if it was just to make sure the safeties were engaged and the guns unloaded. I was tired of wondering what I would do if—heaven forbid—he was out of town and I opened a drawer or a glove box to an unhappy surprise that should’ve been in the gun safe.
So I said I’d take a beginner’s two-day defensive handgun course at Front Sight Nevada if he did it with me.
To my husband, it was Christmas and Father’s Day and birthday and Halloween rolled into one. He immediately ordered me a gun belt and started gleefully packing for our trip.
At Front Sight, the smartest thing he did was to pair up with our son instead of me at the range. As I worked through fundamentals with two different women on the firing line (high-fiving and whispering sisterhood words of encouragement of what to do next to each other), he proceeded to shoot shot after shot through the same quarter-sized bullet hole with his non-dominate hand, à la Inigo Montoya.
I started calling him Iggy.
To my surprise, in just two days I went from not knowing a thing about guns to knowing how to safely load, unload, clear a malfunction, and fire a gun in controlled pairs. I hit targets in all the right places.
I’m still not going to conceal carry. I’m still not owning a gun.
But I get it now. Just a little.
The signs lie.
Standing at the trailhead to Balcony House at Mesa Verde in Colorado, I thought I knew what I was getting into. When I bought tour tickets for family and friends the day before, the signs at the visitor’s center warned me about the 100 plus stairs I’d have to climb down and the rickety 32’ wooden ladder I’d have to scale—not to mention the assorted smaller ladders and uneven steps carved into the rock that I’d have to ascend.
It’s no secret that I’m not comfortable on ladders. Heights I can handle as long as I’m not somehow suspended in mid-air. Tall buildings? No problem. Ski lifts? No way. Zip lines? See ya.
Truth be told, I’m not fond of stairs either. I figure if modern people are supposed to climb more than a single flight of stairs at a time, God would not have allowed the invention of escalators and elevators.
Unfortunately, over the years I’ve also evolved into more of a sedentary cool, can I see it on Netflix? person than the gung ho let’s shoot our own documentary on site and live off rehydrated mac and cheese for a week person I used to be.
Some might say I’m lazy. I think of it as growing old enough to afford air conditioning and appreciate room service.
I knew going into it that this trip was supposed to be a throwback to the good old days when our two families camped and hiked together and made s’mores around the campfire with the kids—although this year we were staying in a hotel with indoor plumbing, hot water, and real beds and the only kids with us were our two seventeen year old caboose babies.
Everyone was jazzed. We’d traveled a long way to see the ruins of the Pueblo cliff dwellings on Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of the year that the tours opened. None of us had ever been here. And while the thought of hanging off a cliff and swinging in the breeze made my stomach queasy, there are some things you just have to suck up and do.
Like a good sport, I bought the tickets, swapped out my rubbah slippahs for tennis shoes and socks, and slathered on sunscreen.
The whole night before I psyched myself for the climb up the 32’ ladder. I had a plan—look straight ahead and keep climbing like a machine. Don’t stop. Don’t look down. Don’t look up. Just do it.
I got this.
But then during the topside orientation the perky ranger holds up her hat. “And then near the end of the tour, you’ll crawl through the tunnel.”
What the what? Tunnel? Nobody said anything about a tunnel. There were no signs at the visitor’s center about crawling through a freaking tunnel.
“The tunnel is as wide as my hat. It’s 12 feet long and gets wider in the middle, then narrows back down to 18 inches. I want you to understand that once you put your foot on the tall ladder and start to ascend, there’s no going back. We all go up and out through the tunnel.”
Oh, baloney. No way the ADA would let that fly in a national park. There’s got to be a handicap by-pass or something.
A tall dude raises his hand. “Why not?”
Ranger Perky chirps, “It’s not safe to go backward. You have to go forward. There really is no going back.” She waves her hat around. “Don’t worry. Everyone here can fit. Trust me. Things squish—you just have to make them.”
Oh, no. Obviously, as an anorexic park ranger she’s never wrestled her lumps and bumps into spanx shapewear. Trust me. Things definitely do NOT compress or squish as much as everyone hopes. Doesn’t she know that in the olden days women wore corsets to get an 18 inch waist?
My corset days were looong in the rearview.
“Let’s go!” she says.
“I’m out,” says Tall Guy. “I’ll wait here.”
I open my mouth and turn to my husband.
He just looks at me and shrugs his shoulders.
I close my mouth and look around.
Seriously, who’s wider than me? I can’t be the only chunky monkey on this tour. That guy? Am I bigger than that guy? I mean around the middle. He looks one can shy of a keg. Anybody else? Not her. She’s smaller than me. Her, too. Him, him, her—all shopping the plus section, but smaller than me. Oh, no. Am I really the biggest person here? Did the ranger see me when she said everyone could fit through her hat? There’re a lot of people here, and I was standing way in the back. What happened to all the geriatric people I saw at the visitor’s center? Where are the folks with the walkers and canes? Why does everyone here look like a triathlete?
I bite my lip.
I say to my teen daughter, “I don’t think I can fit through an 18 inch hole.”
She pats my shoulder. “Mom, she said everyone could fit. Besides, that guy over there is bigger than you. Just go after him.”
I eye Keg Dude. Maybe he’s fatter, maybe not.
He’s oddly unconcerned.
Of course. He’s a dude.
He pulls a granola bar out of his pocket and starts munching.
He sees me watching him and waves. “The ranger said no food on the trail, so I’m eating this now. Don’t want to attract scavengers to the archeological site.”
Perhaps this info should make me feel better, but all it really does is make me afraid that he and I are both in denial. The whole tour is supposed to be an hour. Who carries snacks for an hour hike?
As we head down the trail, I whisper to my friend, “I’m not sure I can do this.” She’s known me from college, from before the kids and late night ice cream runs, when my skinny jeans were truly skinny and my waist was the same circumference as my current thigh.
She pats my arm. “We can do hard things.”
She’s thinking I’m afraid of the ladder and heights. Yes, we can do hard things, but not impossible things. Camels and eyes of needles come to mind.
We start down the 100 stairs. Desert heat radiates off the metal bolted into the side of the cliff. The stair edges are slick with wear, and I hold the rail in a sweaty death grip, certain that I’ll slip and bounce down the cliff.
On second thought, that would solve a lot of things. I consider loosening my grip, but then I imagine myself in a broken heap of blood and bones at the bottom and realize I’d probably chip my teeth on the way down and would have to go to the dentist.
I hate the dentist.
I hold a little tighter and creep down a little slower.
After lulling me with a gentle walk, eventually we turn a corner and come face to face with the 32’ ladder, the point of no return.
I glance at my friend. “We can do hard things,” she says again.
Yes, we can. We can bear children. We can sit through hours of piano recitals, soccer games, and debate tournaments and finish science fair projects at 3 am. We can cook Thanksgiving for 60 people and figure out what to get our MILs for Mother’s Day.
We tell our daughters to face their fears. I glance at mine with her long limbs and athlete’s grace. Will she ever listen to me again if I chicken out?
A small part of my brain recognizes the brilliance of this strategy. I’m so freaked out about the tunnel that climbing a ladder is no big deal.
At the top, there are a few more turns, and then a narrow passageway I squeeze through to get to the first big room. It’s dark. I can’t see with my sunglasses. I suck it in to get around the last bit.
I made it through the tunnel!
Except it’s not the tunnel. Apparently, the tunnel is much smaller and farther along the trail.
The Ranger is nattering on about kivas and rain water, but all I’m thinking about is the evening news where the lead story tonight will be about the daring rescue attempt to pull a wide load out of a narrow shaft.
Rescuers knock down a 1200 year old wall. Pueblo people weep at another westerner’s desecration of their ancestral homeland.
Helicopters and cranes are involved.
Conservationists cry that the cost to historic antiquities is too high, so they advocate simply cementing me in place.
Environmentalists claim that leaving my body to rot will pollute the natural eco-system and cause an explosion in the rat and insect population. They advocate removing me in pieces.
Exercise gurus stand at the entrance and shout at me to do isometrics until the bacon grease and butter finally melts off my derriere and they slid me out like birthing the world’s biggest baby.
Stuck in the tunnel there is nowhere to pee. For days.
I’m encased in a tight tunnel, underground, buried in a grave.
In the dark with the spiders, worms, and rats.
This is much, much worse than hauling myself up a freakishly tall and rickety wooden ladder.
Don’t ask me what Ranger Perky says about the ruins or history or culture. I don’t hear anything except the sighs of everyone about to be inconvenienced by my chocolate-loving body. Small children are about to be traumatized. Their therapy bills alone are going to break the bank.
I’m puffing hard before we even get there.
At the tunnel, I realize it’s a bunny-sized hole in a man-made wall. My friend who weighs what she did in high school, nonchalantly stops, drops, and slithers in.
I feel my daughter press against my back.
I can’t see Keg Dude. Did he climb the ladder? Is he even here or did he wisely chicken out?
I don’t know.
Prescription sunglasses—on or off? Too dark to see with them, too blind without them. Screw it. I leave them on. No place to put them that won’t get squished. On my face is the safest bet.
I bend down and firmly banish a nightmare memory of the last time I tried on spanx.
With my friend in front, I figure I can grab her ankle and use pressure to communicate through Morse code that things are not right. I’m pretty sure three long squeezes, three short squeezes, and three long squeezes are S.O.S. Like Lassie, she’ll go for help—after all her family is still behind me, trapped on the other side of the tunnel from hell. She’ll be motivated to work hard to see them again.
Maybe they’ll get a helicopter ride. They’d like that.
I’m grateful my daughter’s behind me. She won’t be afraid to shove, pinch, or push whatever gets stuck. She won’t be dainty. She’s an uber fit jockette with a teenager’s natural abhorrence of both public humiliation and her parents.
If I were Catholic, I’d cross myself and say a final Hail Mary. Instead I console myself with the famous Hawaiian chant, no make A, no make A. No matter what. No. Make. A.
I wiggle through the first part and almost weep with joy to discover how open the middle section is.
Behind me my daughter shrieks. “Oh, gross! Somebody spit in the tunnel! Mom! Watch where you’re going!”
“I don’t care,” I say. “I’m wearing my sunglasses. I can’t see in the dark.”
“Did you crawl right through it? I bet you did!”
The only thought I have is to wonder how much spit reduces friction.
I see the light ahead. The opening at the end is narrower than what I’ve already slithered through. I try not to think of corks and bottles. I fight the urge to try to swing my legs around so I can go out feet first—there’s no way I can do that. I have a quick flash of being stuck and folded like a taco. It’s not pretty.
My knee grinds on a stone. I feel skin tear and blood wells. I twist my shoulders and finally go for the least graceful but quickest exit I can do.
As I plop out onto the ground, my friend looks at me with the oddest expression on her face. I stumble to my feet.
My daughter pops out behind me. “See, Mom, told you you’d fit.”
I’m breathing hard, much harder than I should for such a little thing.
Later, safely in the parking lot, my husband of thirty years hugs me. “That was rough. I didn’t want to say anything, but I know that hike hit all of your buttons.”
Oh, yeah. Heights. Climbing. Underground. Small spaces. Tight spaces. Darkness. Fear of public humiliation. Shame for a once athlete’s now lack of physical fitness.
We can do hard things.
This is the part of a story where the heroine sees the error of her ways, knows she can accomplish great things, and decides to change her life by going on an exercise and diet program. The story ends with her successfully running a marathon in the fall and dedicating her life to rehabilitating adult couch potatoes and enforcing ADA rules at national parks.
But sadly, this isn’t fiction, at least not today.
Pass me the remote.
And the chips.
Turn up the AC. Mama needs a nap.
You’re wearing that? No. Go change. It’s too wrinkled. What do you mean there’s no iron? The rental has a coffee maker, a microwave, a washer and dryer, but no iron? Figure it out. You can’t go looking like that.
You, go shave again. Yes, I mean it. See all of this under your chin? That can’t be there. There’s a new razor and shaving cream in my bag in the bathroom. I don’t want to hear how you’re sunburned and itchy, just do it.
We need to buy a lei. No, I don’t want to go to Royal Lei Shoppe. She’ll think that’s too expensive. Safeway has leis. We’ll get one there. Something nice, but not too nice.Why? Because the best is too nice and that’s worse than not bringing anything at all.
No, not that one. See the brown edges? It’s past its prime. None of these look good. We need a fresh lei. I know if we had gone to an actual flower shop like you suggested I’d have better options, but we don’t have time to go somewhere else. On time is late. No, that’s cheap orchids. It’s a tourist lei. The ginger is nice, but it won’t last. Pikake is good, but look, see how the ribbon is crushed? That one is Micronesia-style; she’s Hawaiian. Yes, that matters. Carnation? Are you kidding me? Here. This one: tuberose and ilima. It smells good—and it’s not too cheap, not too expensive.
Yes, I took the Safeway sticker off the box.
Remember, no slouching. Is that gum in your mouth? Get rid of it. Leave your hat in the car. No cell phones. Stay engaged, but do not interrupt. Children are meant to be seen and not heard. If we eat, your fork is on your left; your water glass is on your right. Napkins on your lap first thing. When we’re done, fold your napkin; don’t wad it up. Cloth napkins, honey. I know because it’s always cloth.
Smile. Remember, everything is fine, everybody is good. We’re all good. Yes, everybody. Do not mention You Know Who or You Know What.
Okay, let’s go. Why are you kids freaking out? She’s your great-grandmother. Just be yourself.
I am sitting in a cafe in the middle of an ancient bull fighter’s arena in Barcelona, Spain, that rivals any modern mall I’ve seen. There’s a cup of hot chocolate the consistency of a melted Hershey bar next to me. My two years of high school Spanish is just enough for shopkeepers to smile indulgently and speak to me in their perfect English. It should embarrass me, but I’m relieved.
A woman with a 5 month old named Gabe is meeting me. Teething and totally off his schedule, Gabe is the mellowest kid I’ve ever seen, but there are some inescapable realities of traveling with an infant we’re dealing with.
Gabe is a chick magnet.
Or maybe just a person magnet because it’s not just abuelitos or senoritas that make google eyes at him. On the metro Gabe had hard-core punk rockers–tattoos, shaved mohawks, and piercings–vying to make him smile.
Good thing he’s a soft touch with an easy toothless grin.
There’s something about a baby that reminds us we’re all human. With Gabe around, everyone is a little softer, kinder. Gabe is soaking it all in through his big baby eyes and mostly going with the flow.
Some day his parents will show him his passport photo and tell him all about his trip to Spain. He won’t remember a thing. But maybe, just maybe when he’s long out of diapers and binkies there will be a sound, a scent, a flash of light on a curved wall and for a brief moment Gabe will remember the Barcelona sun and the pattern of leaves against the sky on the Las Rambas walkway as it arced above his stroller canopy.
Or at least wonder why the sound of a train always puts him to sleep.
We are deep in the Mexican campo, far off the beaten tourist path. We’ve come to a wide place in the road that marks a small tienda, a cinderblock and corrugated tin hut that serves as the only grocery, hurricane shelter, gas station, post office, and cantina for miles around. My daughter has asked that we stop here. After a day exploring authentic Mexican ruins she wants authentic Mexican gum.
Newborn, my daughter’s skin was the color of Ivory soap; blue veins ran like lace beneath her tender knees and elbows mapping the way to her heart. Now at thirteen, she’s all legs like a colt, but unlike a colt she walks with the grace of an athlete and the unconscious entitlement of Bolshoi ballerina.
Gathered high on her head in a no-nonsense pony tail, her Nordic blond hair shimmers as she moves from the sunlit road through the doorway, cascading like molten gold down her back. She sets her sunglasses on the top of her head and pauses to let her ice blue eyes adjust to the dimness. Turning to her left, she stalks the scant aisles and shelves for interesting candy or gum.
Behind her to the right, a small brown button of a girl stands enrapt as this vision glides by like a lioness. The girl turns and furtively follows my daughter, touching what she touches, examining what she sees. I stand by the cash register, waiting. A woman old enough to be the girl’s great-grandmother putters around the counter, watching without looking.
Unaware, my daughter turns abruptly, bowling over her shadow, knocking the girl off her tiny bare feet.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” my daughter flutters, helping the girl up. She brushes the dirt from the floor off the girl’s dress and glances around for nonexistent shoes and adult supervision.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
“¿Eres un ángel?” Are you an angel, the girl whispers.
My daughter smiles. She doesn’t speak Spanish, but it’s apparent that the little girl is okay. She warmly pats her shoulder, flashes another Colgate smile, and turns her attention to the few boxes of sweets that originally caught her eye. Impatient, she flips her hair back over her shoulder. Mesmerized, the girl reaches out, but her fingers stop just shy of nestling in Rapunzel’s golden web.
Realizing her shadow is still next to her, my daughter squats on her heels so they’re near the same height. The girl drinks all this in. My daughter motions to the candy.
“Which do you like?” she asks.
The girl gravely considers her toes.
“This?” In my daughter’s hand a pineapple dances the merengue with a banana on a bright green and yellow package.
The girl glances up, then shakes her head no.
Another package. “Chocolate?”
The girl shrugs her shoulders. My daughter stands and holds the package out for me to see.
“It’s chocolate,” I say. “Probably over thin sugar wafers with vanilla crème in between.”
She nods and puts it back.
“Get what you want,” I say, “but hurry. It’s a long way back to the harbor.”
My daughter makes a pouch out of the bottom of her tee-shirt and fills it with more treats than she’ll ever eat, more than what everyone waiting in the rented van would eat. It’s an odd sampling of golden taffy, fruit chews, gum, and chocolates that she dumps on the counter.
The elderly woman raises an eyebrow. I’m sure we’ve wiped out most of her supply. She calculates and I pay; the total is less than the cost of a Coke on the cruise ship.
The shopkeeper sweeps the sweets into a brown paper bag, creases the edge, and hands it to my daughter.
“Que linda.” How beautiful, she says to me, shaking her head in pity.
“Gracias.” Thank you, I murmur, rolling my eyes. I know what she means.
At the doorway my daughter rummages through the candy and pulls out a package of gum. She refolds the bag and holds it out.
“For you,” she says, handing the rest of the treasure to her shadow. “I didn’t know what you liked. I hope there’s something in there that’s your favorite.”
The girl takes the bag and raises her arms.
“Oh, sweetheart, of course I’ll give you a hug!” My daughter bends down and wraps her arms around the girl, engulfing her in an embrace. “I’m sorry I knocked you over.”
“Angel bellisima de Dios, llévame contigo. Quiero irme al Cielo,” the girl says. Beautiful angel of God, take me with you to heaven.
“Conchie!” snaps the woman, followed by a torrent of colloquial Spanish I didn’t learn in high school.
Stung by a whip, the girl jumps back.
“Oh,” my daughter stumbles, “I—,” no longer a lion, like a gazelle she flees out the door.
“Lo siento,” sighs the woman. I’m sorry. She looks at the girl, then back at me, touching her forehead with a flick of her fingers. “Tocada.” Touched.
“No problema,” I say and walk out the door.
Back in the van my husband teases our daughter, “Just a pack of gum? Looked like you had a shirt full.”
“I bought more, but gave it to a girl. Did I do something wrong, Mom? Are they mad at me?”
“Of course not.”
She cracks the cellophane wrapper and hands the hard Chiclets out.
“I just wanted to see,” she says.
- You could wear pajamas grocery shopping and no one would know.
- Skip everything but eye make-up.
- Ponytail hair every day.
- No shaving, waxing, or nylons.
- No sunscreen.
- Big lunch? No problem.
- Ultimate crowd blend—you could hide in your car and check email instead of sitting with the other mothers at the soccer game. (Of course I saw your awesome goal/kick/pass/tackle, honey! I was sitting on the bench right there!)
- One black handbag.
- One pair of comfortable black shoes.
- Carrying a scythe, you could scare the crap out of people walking down a hospital corridor.
I understand that what I called a burka in this and previous posts is a religious garment, an outward reflection of an inner commitment to a particular standard of modesty and propriety. I respect that. I also understand that these garments are usually worn only in public where men not related to a woman might see her. However, as a non-Muslim woman from the USA, seeing so many women wearing hijab, niqab, and burqas in Turkey made me wonder what benefits I might get from wearing Islamic dress. For those interested, here’s a better description of what I saw.
Hijab: Covers a woman’s body leaving only face and hands visible. What I saw most often in Turkey, particularly among women walking alone. Long skirts or long pants with thigh-length coats and head scarves. The clothes were always dark blue, grey, black, or brown. Some of the under 30 crowd wore brightly patterned head scarves. Well, sorta. Lots of blues, golds, muted greens, and browns. Very few pinks, reds, yellows, or purples.
Niqab: A loose fitting garment that also covers part of the face leaving only eyes visible. Less common, but I usually saw women in niqab in pairs or threesomes. Black. The fabric weight varied with some floating more like silk or nylon and others looking heavy like wool.
Burqa: A loose fitting garment that also obscures the face with a mesh so even the eyes are not visible. Fairly rare, but burqa wearers tended to travel in packs with male escorts. Black, only black, and heavy weighted fabrics.
Sunday evening, May 4, 2014, Istanbul, Turkey.
There are 800 of us in semi-formal western attire walking through the plaza past the Hagia Sophia to the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarayi) where we’ll have a dinner so fancy that at 2 am my husband will order pizza from room service.
The walk is long, over uneven cobblestones and up and down slick marble steps. Most of my attention is on avoiding holes and cracks, teetering along in my sparkly spiked heels. My swollen and healing foot isn’t quite up to the stress, but every women knows beauty is pain. I keep a tight grip on my husband’s arm.
I’m not the only woman walking gingerly, so we’re strung out in a line that runs about a third of a mile long. What little attention I can spare is spent bedazzled by the soaring minarets and domes of the buildings we pass by. It’s everything I’ve seen in history books and more. Carts selling roasted chestnuts, watermelon, corn on the cob, and something I suspect is tea are strategically placed along the way, as are benches under shady trees.
And that’s when I see them.
It’s Sunday evening after all, and local families have been enjoying the day in the Old Town, the part of Istanbul that was once Constantinople and before that, Byzantium. Ancient doesn’t begin to describe it. Over loud speakers we hear an Imam wailing praise and glory to Allah, calling the faithful to remember and give thanks.
Perched on benches, gathered in front of spurting fountains, and lining both sides of the walkway are women in burkas. I can only see their eyes, but I can feel their disapproval. They clutch children close and whisper in their ears. I resist the urge to tug down on my hem. In a fitted black cocktail dress that comes to my knees, covers my shoulders, and barely shows my collarbones, I feel like I’m wearing a bikini.
Ahead of me people in my group are taking pictures with cell phones and surreptitiously point with their chins at men in fezzes offering to shine shoes, beggars leaning against walls, gypsy children chasing around a tree. At the same time I see cell phones peeking out of burka sleeves, snapping photos of us, the freak show on parade. Some of the young men walk up and boldly take pictures of long legs and short hems, crowing to their buddies as they gather to review their spoils.
I catch their eyes and give them my best motherly you-should-be-ashamed-of-yourself look. They back off. It’s only later that I learn that making direct eye contact with a male stranger is more scandalous than cleavage.
I take note of the few burka-less women I see: dark colors, closed-toed shoes, long pants or skirts to the ankle, long sleeves, thigh-length coats, head scarves. I think of what I packed: bright colors, capris, sandals, short-sleeves. There’s no way I’m not going to stick out like a naked sore thumb. Even my rain jacket is bright raspberry.
I’m not used to this. By most American standards, I dress on the dowdy side of frumpy. I’m pudgy in all the wrong places. Baggy and shapeless are my friends. The idea that anyone besides my husband could find me titillating is ludicrous, but waves of disapproval are crashing all around me. I begin to question my own standards of modesty and wonder if it’s all in our heads.
Maybe modesty is really more about what people think and assume rather than how much skin is showing.