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    On Istiklal Caddesi

    Child labor is not a secret here. It plainly happens. Children roast nuts, play accordions, sell rice from wheeled street carts, and hawk kerchiefs. Two days ago, I found this beautiful, young girl on Istiklal Caddesi, a main boulevard that runs down the “heart” of Istanbul. As you can see, she was singing a song, which I don’t know. And, as she played, there was something very sad and touching about her body language. Even as she worked like an adult — performing for change — her body language was so childish.

    She can’t be more than seven years old.

    Can you see the "United Colors of Benetton" storefront in the window's reflection? As a store known for its politically-correct ad campaigns, there is something unsettling about a child street performer, working a mere few feet away.

    Another child musician, probably from the same family, offers to take over (a "shift change").

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    Taksim Performers

    Performers from Ecuador in Taksim Square.

    I met Ecuadorian performers in Taksim Square. They knew very little English and practically no Turkish, except “on beş” (meaning “fifteen,” the cost of their audio disc). So, we spoke in Spanish. The girl (pictured above) explained that they come from a town outside Quito. She arrived in Istanbul, along with her family (uncle and brother) and close friend (pictured above), a few weeks ago. They plan to spend time here — about 2 months — playing music, dancing and, hopefully, making some money. Then, they will return home.

    Singing for their curious Istanbul audience

    The Turkish audience members were interested, no doubt. But they also seemed confused, as if they didn’t know how to act/what to do. A large circle enveloped the performers while two gypsy children ran through the crowd, playing games.

    “The South American performers began coming here about two years ago,” my friend, Fatih, explained. “That’s when I first saw them in Istanbul.”

    Tourism is a strange thing. When I watched the performers, I thought about being an “outsider.” For example, I’m an outsider here in Istanbul. I’m the recorder. I’m the observer. ..taking photos, writing blog posts.

    But, at that moment, the Ecuadorian performers were outsiders. Loud, excited Turks took flash photos — displaying the Ecuadorians like tourists sights — like the Louvre or Acropolis.

    And, in a way, the Turks were outsiders, too — peering into a very foreign culture, probably tailored to seem even more exotic and strange, even more indigenous and removed than the real lives of the performers in Ecuador.

    And I wondered ..was this even their “indigenous” culture? The clothing and dancing seemed American Indian, like Cherokee or something — not Andean/Ecuadorian!

    The whole thing was a bit surreal — the Ecuadorian performers, the awe-struck Turks, the rambunctious gypsy youth. And me.

    Most people didn’t buy the music or donate money. They were  just interested from afar.

    And the experience was both obnoxious and a strange relief — to not be the recorder for once.

    Dancing for the audience

    I tried to ask the girl what she thought of Istanbul — the people, the food, the life. She didn’t have much to say. She was more quiet, perhaps. But very kind. And her friend — the young guy — was so charmingly youthful. I figured he must be a  playful jokester back home.

    There were so many questions left unanswered. No doubt, it’s expensive to fly out four people to Istanbul, especially during the tourist season. What do they do in Ecuador?

    But, most of all, I wondered about their daily lives in Istanbul, before they hit the streets in the evening. What do they eat? What do they do? Who do they talk to? And when they go home in the morning, after a hard night’s work …what do they think of the whole thing?

    Gypsy kids running through the half circle surrounding the Ecuadorian performers. A surreal blend of old world Europe and the globalized tourist industry.

    Gypsy/Roma kids taking a seat by the subway entrance to watch the Ecuadorian performers.

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