Trip Start Sep 14, 2009
3Trip End Jan 22, 2010
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Merhaba to one and all,
Ozgur and I are about 2 weeks into our trip now. As I write this, I am nursing a cold on a lumpy, but reasonably comfy futon-like mattress on the floor of our ground-level room in Ozgur's mom (Medine) and step-dad’s (Suleyman) modest two-level farm home.
I’ll call this home – and the speck of a mountain village we’re in – Shangri-la from here on in.
Outside the sun is shining brilliantly, as it has since we arrived here three days ago
Shangri-la is nestled in the mountains of eastern Turkey. As the crow flies, it's no more than a couple of hundred km from here to the Black Sea and about 100k south to Erzurum, a vibrant city of half a million people and the hub of this (mostly) ranching and dairy region. Ozgur, recalling her social studies classes of looo…ong ago, advises me that they produce a lot of cement around here as well.
A few hundred km away to the north-north east of Erzurum is the border with Armenia, just south of that is the border with Iran, and slightly more south of that is Iraq. All three, as well as Syria and Georgia, share a border with eastern Turkey.
The vast majority of Turks are Muslims (especially in this neck-of-the-woods), and all are governed by a secular central government out of Ankara, the Turkish capital. Unlike the situation in some neighbouring lands, no one here is killing or bullying anyone with IEDs or rusty cold-war era armaments or swords or rocks or pointy sticks or what-have-you in the name of some fundamentalist creed
Yet, probably even Shangri-la isn’t as isolated and safe from the troubles of the outside world as one might like to think.
A couple of nights ago, as we all sat together breaking bread and sharing dinner – served in communal portions in a somewhat tapas-like fashion – kneeled around a small circular table on the floor of the dining/living room, Suleyman talked about the apparently high incidence of cancer in some parts of this eastern region of the country.
When Chernobyl blew up in the 80’s in Russia on the other side of the Black Sea, the toxic fallout from the explosion was far-reaching and indiscriminately merciless in its search for unsuspecting victims. Even Shangri-la may easily have been affected. But who really knows for sure? These kinds of things are almost impossible to prove, one way or the other. Largely forgotten concerns of a likely connection resurface, however, whenever a close relative falls prematurely to cancer.
Earlier today, after tending to his bees, Suleyman described a further, perhaps more problematic – certainly, locally it probably is – wrinkle of connectivity to the "outside" world.
The bees aren’t doing so well and honey production lately has been poor. In fact, they’ve had a tough time for a few years now. Apparently, microscopic mites have migrated to the region with European swarms (is that the right word for bees by the bunches?). The parasitic mites cling to the bees and hurt their ability to fly properly.
To make matters worse, there’s also a worldwide problem with bees in general these days – they’re struggling everywhere it seems and no one is quite sure why. The only thing for certain is that if the number of bees – our great pollinators – were to really fall en masse on a global scale because of whatever it is that’s bugging them, the outlook for agriculture everywhere wouldn’t be particularly rosy. It would cause the kind of natural disaster that would make the current financial crisis look like a miniscule blip in relative importance.
Now that I’ve cheered you all up…ok ok…I'm sorry, it wasn’t my intention to get all serious and alarmist, but the fact is, perhaps when a butterfly flaps its wings on the other side of the planet, in some mysterious way, it could indeed have an impact where you are
To get to Shangri-la you climb steeply up a well-maintained and winding dirt road from a nearly new and relatively sparsely used 4-lane paved highway about 8 km away.
All around the village are craggy weather-beaten and largely barren mountains of mixed volcanic and sedimentary origin. Over the millennia, these steep craggy formations have weathered away slowly, or – as must have happened on at least one occasion here – failed en masse, in turn weathering in-situ even more to become rich soils ideal for growing just about anything.
The majority of homes – and there are no more than two or three dozen here in Shangri-la (it’s real name is Doruklu) – rest atop a lumpy, hummocky, extensive plateau wedged between two valley walls and directly below an imposing cliff face hundreds of metres high
My guess is that the lumpy, foundational flat spot upon which Shrangi-la rests was formed eons ago by a single localized geologic catastrophe – a massive slope failure that extended across most or all of the cliff face – probably well before anything remotely human even existed in this part of the planet.
Over time, other smaller wedges of flat or gently sloping fertile land have eroded and fallen from the slopes above and perched themselves here-and-there all the way down this tributary valley to the larger main one below, down where that sparsely used immaculate highway runs.
Together with Shangri-la, two other stamp-sized villages are perched within these tributary slopes, spaced by only a few kilometres, and all are reachable by the curvy little dirt road that starts and ends at the highway.
As a sidebar – although clearly painted white lines divide the highway into well-defined lanes, I’ve come to the conclusion that those lines appear to have been placed there primarily for decorative purposes.
Suleyman, along with just about all the drivers on the road, regularly wanders his vehicle from lane to lane, crosses it into the oncoming side, or straddles it across lanes without much care or concern. Somewhat surprising, I’ve noticed dogs sleeping in the middle of the highway without a care in the world (when cars approach, they will sometimes lazily lift their heads, gaze out with sleepy eyes, then return to their slumbers – often, they don’t bother to display even that much concern or curiosity). More shockingly, I’ve seen pedestrians and cyclists – on a number of different occasions – wander carelessly onto the road without looking, as if the highway were a mere trail. But, it all seems to work somehow. Wrecks and carcasses aren’t strewn about all over the place and tales of horrific crashes are practically unheard of.
Anyway…back to our story. A couple of nights ago Ozgur and I went for a long walk along our little access road
Although Yellowknife – home for both Ozgur and I – is also very much in the middle of nowhere in northern Canada (the source of its’ beauty and downfall, all in one); there, you always hear air traffic heading to and fro the city’s surprisingly busy airport. In the skies high above, it’s common to see the contrails of big-city-based jets arcing their way over the Arctic Circle carrying passengers to/from Europe. Even when you’re 100km from Yellowknife and supposedly further in the middle of nowhere, the occasional sounds or sights of aircraft are always there. There’s nothing like that here. Zip. Nada. Just blue sky in the day, and star-speckled darkness at night.
It’s easy here to forget that the rest of the world is out there – somewhere
Then…to keep me real...thoughts of the ghosts of Chernobyl and of imperiled bees buzz into my head to spoil my idyllic mental musings.
Medine and Suleyman are both “retired”. She was a teacher. He worked as a labourer or driver for most of his working years. Suleyman grew up in Shangri-la; Medine is a recent “import”, having come to live here with Suleyman when both re-married about 7 years ago. They own a 2006 Renault 4-door sedan with low mileage. Together they receive pensions approaching 2,000 Turkish lire – close to $1,500 Canuck bucks.
Both are faithful, yet refreshingly (surprisingly?) open-minded and actively practising Muslims – in fact, yesterday as we returned from a daytrip to see a couple of ancient Christian monasteries, Suleyman stopped the car at one point, got out, and performed his prayers by the roadside
Everywhere we’ve been – whether in Erzurum or in neighbouring communities to Shangri-la – everyone seems to know and like Suleyman.
Suleyman has mentioned to Ozgur on more than one occasion – in Turkish, of course (his English is even less than my almost non-existent Turkish) – that “wouldn’t it be nice if Michael would become a Muslim one day?” I know it’s a compliment of sorts to have him suggest this (while at the same time casting aside completely Ozgur’s own stance and the fact that she stopped being a Muslim ages and ages ago); however, sorry Suleyman, it just ain’t going to happen. I’m quite happy to let others believe what they want, in whatever (non-violent) way they want, but I’m just not that interested in signing up for any particular organized belief system. Never have been.
Medine and Suleyman are both relaxed, and quick to smile and laugh. They work their farm and pasture land with a healthy and enthusiastic vigour. Those lands provide pretty much all they need – corn, beans, apples (lots!), grapes, plums, walnuts, honey, an interesting assortment of other edibles I’ve never seen before, etc., etc
BTW, Shangri-la is fully electrified and connected to the national cell phone grid. And when Medine and Suleyman want to connect further to the outside world, satellite TV is a remote-control click away (satellite disks, I’ve noticed, protrude from nearly all homes in Turkey). Sadly, though Canucks games are accessible, neither of our hosts has much interest in watching any. Go figure.
But enough about paradise. As nice as it is here, it is not (nor could it possibly be) representative of the rest of this rich and diverse country. Nor has our hugely positive experience here been representative of the rest of our trip, so far, either.
In fact, our entrance into Turkey – via a cheap “Sun Express” charter from Frankfurt to Antalya – was pretty much a disaster
Because we arrived late – nearing midnight – transport into town was limited. Knowing full well that Antalya (with nearly two million people and all of 'em seemingly scurrying here there and everywhere at the same time) was likely to be a crap-hole (I’m perhaps being a tad unkind – but then again, remember that as I write this I don’t have the best first-impression to reflect upon), we wanted to get on the road out of town as soon as possible the next morning. So we asked the cabbie for his input on a good but cheap place to stay. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Never ever do that. I knew better than this, but had sadly forgotten.
Mr. Cabbie took us to the “Otel London”, a sparkly clean, but bereft of any personality (except for the prostitutes that we later found out apparently punch the clock there), five or six level hi-rise hotel entirely surrounded by other taller, even more sterile (and likely more expensive) blindingly white facaded hotel-apartments, all crammed onto a treeless, grassless, plantless, flowerless -- but car-filled -- street, somewhat close to the otogar (the central bus terminal)
To Ozgur’s dismay (she was trashed and desperately wanted to sleep), I just couldn’t do it. Even if they had offered the place to us for free, I simply couldn't stay there – and worse yet, wake up in daylight a few hours later and see it even more clearly for the disappointment it really was.
Having come to this land for the first time and with firmly entrenched images of magnificent Turkish landscapes fixed in my mind, I couldn’t let this arsehole of a place be my point of entry into this remarkable land. This simply could NOT be my first memory of Turkey; though paradoxically it turns out to be. Funny how that works.
I told Ozgur to tell the driver to take us where we originally wanted to go – to Kaleici, in the ancient central part of Antalya. Full credit goes to Ozgur. As tired as she was – and quite frankly ready to sleep just about anywhere at this point – she was supportive. Kaleici, largely pedestrian-centred in the last couple of years as a result of a foresightful city by-law, is surrounded by the rest of sprawling, manic, cars-and-people-everywhere Antalya, and would not be easy to get out of in the morning
After almost repeating our earlier mistake of listening to Mr. Cabbie – who wanted to take us to a “pansyion” (vernacular for “pension”) where he “knew the owners” (i.e. where he would get a kick-back for dropping us) – we came to our senses and got out at the Erken Pansyion, a neat looking little place with coffee tables and chairs lined up outside.
In the end, Mr. Cabbie had the last laugh anyway. Our fare was double what it would have been had we gone to Kaleici in the first place. Nonetheless, leaving the Otel London behind was worth it. Rather than staying in a sterile crud-hole catering to a questionable clientele, here at least I knew we would be comfortable. The night worker – one of three young brothers in this family-run affair – greeted us with a warm smile and genuine friendliness. He offered a reasonably good rate and did not pressure us in any way. We jumped at it.
The next day, instead of battling the nearly 30-degree heat and muscling our packs and camera gear back to the otogar, and then using a series of buses to work our way up the coast to Olympos, we rented a car for three days instead. The price wasn’t too bad, and the ability to move at our own pace was just what we needed after our shaky start.
Up the coast we went. Sadly, Olympos and the coastal communities up from there were far from remarkable. In fact, they mostly sucked. I may be the first visitor to Turkey to come away with such an impression, but there you have it
My conclusion after having observed a small, but likely representative sampling of them, is that Turkey’s coastal communities are over-priced for what they have to offer. They are run amok with tourists of every stripe, local and foreign. For a traveler like myself, the thought of hanging around throwing money at packaged day tours on boats or buses or mule-trains full of jabbering tourists with more money than imagination was not what I wanted to do. I wanted to experience Turkey as Turkey, not as some touristic abomination full of dull-minded people.
As it turns out, Turkey as Turkey has its share of problems, and on first glance (I have to be careful not to be too quick to condemn the place that my kids will have roots in – for those of you who haven’t heard yet, Ozgur and I are expecting twins in March of 2010), is not my idea of a traveler’s paradise. But before I get to that, let me finish with the coast.
After two albeit nice – though not remarkably scenic – days in Olympos (this in spite of the warm hospitality of Umit, the operator of the Agartha Pansyion where we stayed), we headed up the coast to Kas
We found what we thought was a cozy pansyion with a roof top room that opened onto a large common deck area that offered a partial view down to the water.
Our room was small. A foot or two of space on either side of the bed was all we had for moving around. I would have (reluctantly) paid 15 or 20 Canuck bucks for a place like this in most of South America. Here it was costing us 65 Turkish Lires (somewhere between $Can 45-50). Hoping for the best, and thinking we would at least have some peace and quiet and a restful sleep, we settled in for the night.
It wasn’t meant to be. Shortly after midnight, a small dog woke us with his (or her’s) incessant yapping at God-knows-what.
On and on it went. I’ve hated small yappy dogs all my life. Now I hated them even more.
I tried to block the noise from my head, but couldn’t. Finally, in desperation I yelled out the window, “Would somebody out there please kill that stupid little dog!”.
To my surprise the horrible little creature stopped yapping. However, an hour later, the barking resumed
Then at about six in the morning, the call to prayer bellowed from the speaker of the minaret of the local mosque, which – “lucky for us” – happened to be across the street, just below our room. So much for our good night’s sleep.
In the end, I’ve discovered that most Turks, if not completely oblivious to noise, are somehow resigned to it. As modern as this country is (and it is very much so), it is simply too crowded in too many places. And with the crowds, comes “inevitable” noise, I guess.
Which gets me to Tasoluk, Ozgur’s home town, on her father’s side.
After dropping off the rental car back in Kaleici, we made our way to the otogar rather easily, courtesy of a proffered ride from one of the brothers at the pansyion where we had stayed our first night.
Our bus -- like most others here -- put the Greyhound buses back home to shame. It was comfy and clean, and although the video never stopped playing (that noise thing, again), provided a mostly relaxing ride
The bus didn’t go right into Tasoluk, just over three hours inland from Antalya; it did however, drop us off at the town’s exit from the main highway. Ozgur’s uncle Mehmet Ali, her brother-in-law, and a young cousin were there to pick us up.
What followed were two rapid-fire days of Bayram (a period of several days of celebrations which mark the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan) festivities. Ozgur’s two sisters and various other family members and their offspring had all gathered in Tasoluk. They were thrilled to see Ozgur again after a few years. I was a curious addition to the mix.
Although I’ll let the attached pictures largely fill in the blanks of our time in Tasoluk, I’ll say this much: In a nutshell, I was very warmly received, notwithstanding Ozgur’s grandpa and grandma, who -- while polite -- weren’t overly thrilled at the prospect of their granddaughter having offspring with an infidel. Oh well…you can’t please everyone, and Ozgur and I knew it was coming, so it wasn’t a big surprise.
Everyone else was warm and friendly and accepted me into the family fold surprisingly easily. We spent much of our time in Tasoluk in the living rooms of various uncles and aunts, gathered in groups, yap-yap-yapping and eat-eat-eating in the aforementioned communal tapas-style. And drinking black tea – lots of it.
I smiled a lot and made sure I always looked genuinely happy to be wherever we were. Not knowing any Turkish, it was the best I could do.
A big hit for everyone was the family photo that Ozgur and I coordinated in the courtyard of her grandparents’ home. An even bigger hit was a slide show of the day’s photos that I put together on my trusty Mac and showed to several family groups the next day. To spice things up, I even threw in some pix from Yellowknife in July when my brother Alex, his son Hunter, and my mom all came to visit.
Both Ozgur and I commented on how nice it was to share the pix we had taken with the subjects of our pictures. Too often we just click away and weeks later, after we’ve long departed, do we ourselves even have time to look through our shots in any organized manner
Ok, to finish up here, let me get back to the noise issue. For some reason, the period of Bayram coincides with many little boys getting their foreskins chopped off and everyone gathering around to celebrate this. There are many weddings timed to coincide with Bayram as well. All of the above are celebrated with loud music and fireworks. Announcements regularly sound from the town’s central loudspeaker inviting one and all to attend so-and-so’s celebration. Much money is spent to try and outshine one’s neighbours.
Seemingly from all directions, music – if you can call it that (because of distortion, to me it most often sounded like the wailing noise of dogs being kicked [one little dog in Kas comes immediately to mind that would have made a great alto-soprano…and I would have happily provided the kicks, if given the opportunity]) – blares from crackling speakers at full volume. People (mostly the men and boys…I’ll take that to mean that the women and girls are saner) gather in chairs, drink tea, offer their share of family gossip, and somehow enjoy the chaos
Curiously, the celebrations that are the loudest and seem to go on the longest – I was told – always involve alcohol of some sort. Ah, yes…the contradictions of life in the Muslim world. (As a footnote, though Turkish beer is actually quite good, no one in Ozgur’s immediate family drank any alcohol at all during any of our gatherings.)
Everyone commented the next day at breakfast about how the noise went on and on and how it had been impossible to sleep properly. That’s as far as it ever goes though. This modern day display of loud pretentiousness – annoying as it is – has been largely accepted as par for the course during Bayram. Why it is, is beyond me. There is only a tenuous connection at best between these modern day festivities and the traditional celebrations of days gone by, before the advent of loudspeakers.
Back in the good ol’ days, you would have showed off your wealth by hiring musicians to play…and I'm willing to bet the farm that no musicians ever played at full volume throughout the whole night for anyone, no matter what the price.
Technology, for all its obvious benefits, also makes the creation of indiscriminate noise possible. And noise is everywhere in this country…though less so in the eastern regions, and not at all here.
Thank goodness for Shangri-la.
Abdul Michaelhamed signing off, for now.