Rob Tokanel's Blog

Last Story

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Kaleigh Higgins and I finished our last story in Istanbul on the flight home last night, and it was posted on by the time our bus from New York made it to Boston. Making it to the AKP rally and getting the interviews we did there was a bit of a miracle and a perfect way to end the trip. After spending an hour being carted around the city by a non-English speaking cab driver who had no idea where we wanted to go, we found some strangers in a cafe to drive us there, act as translators and somehow get us in with the rest of the press, where we grabbed Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs for an interview just as he walked off camera with CNN Turk. As much as we tried to act professional, we couldn’t resist taking some touristy pictures in the front of the podium.

Catherine Strong took the photos for this one and Jessica Gagne put together a great video of the rally, available here.

Even though I’m home now I still plan on using this space, at least for the time being. I’m a little run down at the moment but I certainly have more to say about this trip and the great people I spent it with.


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June 14, 2011 at 4:01 pm

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Geocaching in Istanbul

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Jessica and I took a break from editing our video yesterday to go geocaching with Kimber, and I decided to throw together a little video of it for fun. I had some focusing issues with my camera and it’s a bit long because I didn’t have any editing time today but it was a great way to get out of the hotel for a bit. I definitely plan on doing this in other cities I travel to in the future.

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June 12, 2011 at 3:44 pm

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Turkish Election Video

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Jessica Gagne and I just finished our video on tomorrow’s elections. We shot it on a combination of my digital camera and her flipcam using only the built-in microphones and cut it in iMovie, so all things considered we’re really happy with how it turned out. Finding English speakers on a campus where the classes are taught in Turkish was an adventure, and we ended up getting the political science professor to speak to us by wandering around the department until we found someone willing to talk to us on camera. The shots of the AKP rally were a lot of fun, too. I had to claw my way on top of a crowded pickup truck and hold the camera above my head without a tripod to get the crowd shots we used, after which I was covered in grease. Overall I’m glad I got a chance to mix it up and shoot some video here. I’m personally not interested in making video news packages like this in the future, but I had never really done it before so it was a great experience. Isn’t Jessica a natural with the voice over?

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June 11, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Posted in Story, Turkey

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So I Don’t Forget: Things To Do When I Get Home

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Given the limited time we have in Istanbul, it’s hard not to feel obligated to hustle around the city by day and make it out of the hotel every night, and rightfully so. It’s impossible to know whether I’ll ever be here again, and the city is so huge it’s impossible to see all of it. But as this trip winds down, I find myself taking advantage of my free time to relax more and more. The last few months before I left were hectic and the time I had to myself was limited, and I know this isn’t a vacation, but I feel like I’ve squeezed enough juice out of my time here at this point. I’m clear headed and rested and ready to come home refreshed, and I want to avoid becoming complacent when I get there.

As a student and as a journalist, deadlines can easily become the catalyst for everything, but I won’t be either of those things in a traditional sense anymore when I land back in New York Monday afternoon.  I want to have the same sense of urgency to explore that I had while I was here, and I know that can be easy to lose when there’s no deadline looming. There’s no more news night pressure to get everything done right now before the morning comes, there are no papers due and there’s no one to determine the quality of my work quantitatively; there’s no 100 point scale for how well we live our lives, although I think we might try a little harder if there were.

As has become an unfortunate tendency on this blog, I’m using more words than necessary just to say that I need to motivate myself from here on out. So here’s a quick list of plans for the summer. My to-do lists usually consist of all the little day-to-day things that will get done one way or another by necessity and none of the big ones that take some commitment and forethought, so this one is going to be simple. I’m going to grade myself on a 100 point scale in September and see if my GPA is consistent with the one I maintained for the last five years of school.

Play music again. Make a documentary of some sort. Be active. Leave the city more. Keep writing. Get enough sleep.

First assignment: Learn how to play this song.


Extra credit: Write your own songs.

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June 10, 2011 at 2:24 pm

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Not Getting There

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I’ve purposely avoided discussing the process of getting my stories together here before they’re done, mostly because journalism is largely dependent on other people and changing circumstances. It’s a trade characterized by constant adjustment, and a finished story is almost never the same as the idea that sparked it. If it were, that would probably mean I was trying too hard to make it that way or I was missing the point. For example, the water story from Jordan was originally supposed to be about agriculture in the South, but it became obvious when I started talking to people that the amount of water they were using from the Disi aquifer was causing problems for the country as a whole and especially for people in Amman. That turned out to be a pleasant surprise in terms of reporting because it allowed me to focus more on the community where I was living and to address an issue that affected a wider slice of the population. It also allowed me greater access to sources who were close to me.

It doesn’t always work like that, though, and in some cases what seems like a great story can completely fall apart when the reporting process starts, either because it turns out to be boring or because access to the right people is unavailable. The latter happened to me in Istanbul. I had what I thought was the best story I could have possibly found in this city only to find that reporting it was all but impossible given the amount of time I had, the language barrier and the sensitive nature of the topic.

I assume most people reading this blog are at least vaguely aware that I like casinos, and when I was scoping places to go in Amman and Istanbul they were at the top of the list. In Jordan, they don’t exist. In Turkey, they used to be huge, especially in hotels. From what I’ve learned from media reports, they were becoming too corrupt and difficult to regulate in Istanbul in the late 1990s, and instead of making the effort to control them, the government made all forms of gambling illegal in 1998. It was a controversial move at the time that resulted in a lot of lost jobs and a serious hit to the tourist industry because a lot of wealthy people from nearby Islamic-run countries frequented them.

That didn’t stop people in Turkey from gambling, though. The laws passed only prescribed a small fine for those caught and a mere 500 Turkish lira fine for the people running casinos, which is a little more than 300 USD. The casinos moved underground and the people running them set up shell corporations to cover the money they brought in; they screened members and only allowed in a limited number at a time. Media reports claim there are currently 15 or 20 major ones in Istanbul that are as posh as any you’d find in the states, and they’re ready to move to new locations each time they are raided, which is often. It happens so often that the police stations in Istanbul use covered, confiscated roulette tables as desks in their precincts. To avoid having them confiscated, casinos have built trap doors to hide them immediately when they are raided, and some have apparently been raided six or seven times at this point, but nobody has ever been jailed for running one or gambling in one.

Seriously, how cool is that? I made it my goal to get to one of these places in Istanbul and write a narrative of the process. If possible, I wanted to get video in one of them as well. I asked everyone on the trip who had met someone in Istanbul to ask them about the casinos. I wandered around the streets and bazaars asking people on the street about them. I called the police about them. I even had Abdullah message all the wealthy people he knew from Saudi Arabia to ask if they had been to them. I got two responses. The most common response from people on the street was, “gambling is illegal in Turkey.” The standard response from the connections we made here was, “the people who gamble are involved in the black market, and classy people avoid them. They aren’t the kinds of places you want to be seen, and if you found one, they wouldn’t let you in.” Regardless of the secularism of the government, the vast majority of Turkish people are Islamic, and gambling is still taboo here. I get the sense that even if someone knew where they were and had been to them, they would never have told me, and they certainly wouldn’t have brought me to one.

With only five days left in the country, it looks like I won’t be bringing home any sketchy black market poker chips as souvenirs and gifts for the people who would have loved to have them as card protectors back home. It’s my only regret on this trip, but I think it’s fair to assume it was probably for the best, because there’s really no way of knowing how it would have gone over if someone figured out what I was up to while I was there. Judging from the way people talk about them, it doesn’t seem like anyone would have been pleased when I started shooting video from the hip and jotting down notes about my surroundings. It would have been a gamble, but that’s what I was looking for to begin with. In the words of the great Mike McDermott: “You can’t lose what you don’t put in the middle, but you can’t win much either.” Well, at least I tried, but in this case, I think the more fitting quote came from KGB: “It hurts, doesn’t it? Your hopes dashed, your dreams down the toilet. And your fate is sitting right beside you.” I know there’s a casino sitting right beside me somewhere around here, but this one looks like a classic case of not getting there.

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June 8, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Story, Turkey, Woops

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Why Didn’t Anyone Tell Me…

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that Istanbul has been spelled wrong on the side of this page since I got here?

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June 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm

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Meta Blogging!

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This is a short photo essay about my experience creating a photo gallery 15 minutes ago. Meta, right? I just posted the mostly-boring photo gallery below from my favorite Internet cafe here. It’s outside, super cheap and mostly devoid of other tourists. A lot of us have been coming here to blog in the morning because the Internet in our hotel is excruciatingly slow and occasionally nonexistent. Check out the busy workers!

As gross as this picture may look, the food is also incredible. This is some kind of greasy egg skillet thing with tomatoes, cheese and paprika. Delicious!

See that little baby glass in the top right corner? I usually drink Turkish coffee, which is basically a half-filled glass of coffee grounds with a bit of hot water on top, but I went to Starbucks this morning so I thought I’d go easy with some orange tea. Orange tea!

But wait! What is this? That’s not tea… Jessica, what does this taste like to you? I know, right? Kimber, try this! What does that taste like to you? Could it be? Ahhhh, it is! Hot Fanta!

Hot Fanta.

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June 6, 2011 at 11:30 am