Gunter and I first landed on Turkey’s shores in the summer of 2007. We confidently left Pacific Bliss “on the hard” in Marmaris Yacht Marina. The following spring, we returned to Turkey for the final leg of our sailing circumnavigation. While touring Istanbul, I was surprised to learn that tulips and St. Nick both originated in that country.

That spring, Istanbul was alive and glowing, in a festive mood. The city was celebrating its annual tulip festival, and colorful blooms were everywhere. Istanbul, with its bridges across the Bosporus Strait, straddles the two continents of Europe and Asia. After enjoying the city for two days, my husband Gunter and I took a ferry trip to view the city from the river. It was a sun-splashed Sunday. We spent hours relaxing and chatting about Turkey’s past and its hopes for the future. Much of the conversation centered around the peoples’ love and respect for Atatürk, a charismatic leader, military genius, and celebrated reformer who modernized Turkey. “He made Turkey a secular country,” our said proudly.  “As a result, Turkey will never be like the other Muslim countries; in fact, we look forward to joining the EU.” The future for Turkey looked as rosy as those tulips fronting every landmark from the Blue Mosque to the Aya Sofya.

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We ordered coffees, and while we waited for them, our guide changed to another topic, the legend of St. Nick. “Did you know he came from Turkey?”

“I had no idea!” I replied. “I thought the Saint might have come from Russia. Our own legend is that he and his elves and reindeer live at the North Pole.”

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“I know your popular image is of the big belly, the white beard, and his reindeer, but that depiction came from your Coca-Cola ads in the 1930s.  Here’s the real story: Centuries before the Ottoman Empire, St. Nick got his start as a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey. He was born a rich man’s son, but he took his inheritance and gave it to the poor, supposedly dropped down chimneys. Poor people in Turkey are very proud; they would not have accepted gifts if he had just handed them to him.”

We all take a sip of our Turkish coffees while we listen intently. “Mainly, St. Nicolas helped the children and gave them gifts.”

“Where in Turkey did he come from?” Gunter asked.

“There is a statue of him with children in Demre, a town in Southern Turkey, and the old Byzantine Church of St. Nicholas is there.  Lots of Russians go there, but it’s not big on tourism.”

Reportedly, the Islamist government of President Erdogan has worked hard to promote the country’s Ottoman history, but he has repeatedly ignored Turkey’s rightful place in Christian history. I don’t expect the current government to promote the St. Nicholas story.

This Christmas of 2016, I look back on that Turkish Spring of eight years ago. And I fear for Turkey’s future. Turkey is overwhelmed with problems—frequent terror attacks, huge populations of Syrian refugees, and mass arrests and incarcerations after a failed coup. All this makes the country dangerous and drives tourists away. I don’t know whether I’ll ever visit Turkey again, but the country and its people will always hold a special place in my heart.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours!



With the world news focused on wars in the Middle East wars and the plight of more than 50 million displaced people, highest since World War II, we tend to pay scant attention to a few disputed reefs in the South China Sea. But this sea and what’s above and below those reefs are more important than you may think.

First, this is the geographical meeting place where Southeast Asia’s 600 million people converge with China’s 1.3 billion people and the Indian subcontinent’s 1.5 billion people. The South China Sea is the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans, where sea routes merge.  More than half of the world’s annual merchant fleet tonnage passes through the choke points of the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok, and Makassar straits. When Gunter and I sailed through the Malacca Strait, the most dangerous in the world, we were astonished to learn that the oil transported through that strait was triple the amount that travels through the Suez Canal and fifteen times the amount that transits the Panama Canal. Last week, while researching the Asian section of “The Long Way Back,” I learned that approximately two thirds of South Korea’s energy supplies, nearly 60 percent of Japan’s and Taiwan’s energy, and 80 percent of China’s crude imports come through the South China Sea.

Second, more important than its location, is the fact that this area has proven reserves—lots of it—seven billion barrels of oil, as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. China calculates that this sea will eventually yield 130 billion barrels of oil, more than Saudi Arabia! A second “Persian Gulf” in Asia could overcome the need for oil to pass through the dangerous Malacca Strait.

A third reason why the South China Sea is important is that it is on its way to become the most contested body of water in the world. Countries lining the South China Sea are scrambling for territory and power. Anyone who speculates that with the onset of globalization, territorial disputes have become “so last century” should observe what is happening here, where geography is destiny.” Just maybe Mark Twain was right in quipping “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” The South China Sea is home to more than two hundred small islands, rocks, and coral reefs—only about a dozen of which are permanently above water. Yet the geostrategic importance is significant. Take the Spratlys, with significant oil and gas deposits, for example: These reef islands are claimed in full by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, and in part by Malaysia, the Philippines, and Brunei. China has built concrete helipads and military structures on seven reefs and shoals. On Mischief Reef, China has constructed a three-story building and 5 other military structures. On Johnson Reef, China put up a structure armed with high-powered machine guns. On other reefs, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have naval structures, runways, piers, and storage tanks. See figure 1.

FIGURE 1: Spratly Islands military settlements by countries claiming rights.

FIGURE 1: Spratly Islands military settlements by countries claiming rights.

China’s maps dating back centuries (see figure 2) claim a historic nine-dash line, or “cow’s tongue” looping the entire South China Sea from China’s Hainan Island 1,200 miles south to Singapore and Malaysia. All of these weaker, littoral states are more or less arrayed against China and dependent on the United States for diplomatic and military backing. Conflicting claims will only increase; energy consumption in developing Asian countries is expected to double by 2030, with China accounting for half of that growth.

FIGURE 2: The nine-dash line, or tongue, (highlighted in green) of the South China Sea claimed by China but disputed by others.

FIGURE 2: The nine-dash line, or tongue, (highlighted in green) of the South China Sea claimed by China but disputed by others.

China has built dredged platforms with runways long enough to land her jet fighters and has been declaring maritime sovereignty in the area for some time. Under President Xi Jinping, China wants to break an American circle of alliances that reaches from the Korean peninsula through Japan and the Philippines. America’s future as a maritime power in the Asia-Pacific and the security guarantees to its allies—all of them concerned about China’s growing military might—is at stake. The U.S. sent a blunt but restrained message last week by sailing the USS Larsen, a guided missile destroyer, within 12 nautical miles of Subi Reef.

This struggle for balance of power will most likely continue for decades. “…there is no philosophical enemy to confront,” postulates Robert Kaplan, author of Asia’s Cauldron. “The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business…While the language at Asian summits will be soft, the deployment of warships in disputed areas will be hard.”

The trajectory of this huge region could change, making the Pacific I love not so pacific in the future.


Wall Street Journal, Oct. 28, “Horizon Shifts in Spratly Islands Dispute” 

China’s Pacific Overtures,” Simon Winchester, New York Times

Credits: Wikipedia commons.

Books: Asia’s Cauldron, Robert D. Kaplan; Pacific, Simon Winchester