Monday, July 26: I wake up on the rumbling bus at 6 a.m., roused by the bus attendant serving coffee from his cart. Out the window I get a sunrise view of central Turkey. A large expanse of plains, no trees, soft dusty-green hills with gentle folds. A huge body of shallow-looking water and mudflats stretch to the horizon on the right. The road is fairly deserted and the ride is rough and bumpy. I realize after drinking the coffee and jerking along the potholed road for a while that I suddenly need to pee. The ride goes on and on. I have no idea how far we are from our destination. It’s bad. I’m fretting, trying to get comfortable, trying not to think about having to go to the bathroom. Why don’t these buses have bathrooms and why don’t they have a set schedule for stops? What will I do?? What, what?
Suddenly the bus pulls up to a dilapidated gas station in the middle of nowhere. I don’t see anyone making a move to get off. I am in the front seat, so I jump up and say, “Toilet??” to the bus driver. I jump off the bus, run in and use the filthy squat toilet. I have never been so happy to see a squat toilet. 🙂 I run back to the huge coach, everyone looking at me as I get back on the bus. What happened? I never asked the driver to stop, but I certainly took advantage when he did! Later I find it was another man who had asked for the stop; he must have relieved himself right outside the bus. Anyway, I’m relieved, in more ways than one. Now I can relax and enjoy the ride.
At 8:50 a.m., I arrive at the Antik Cave Hotel. It’s too early to check in, but they let me shower and change in an empty room. Breakfast on the terrace is Turkish style: feta and provolone cheese, a bologna-like meat, orange juice, coffee, fresh bread with butter, hard-boiled eggs, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers. Bees are swarming around us. I meet a newlywed couple from Pennsylvania: Sezen and Bob. Sezen is Turkish and Bob is an American tobacco-chewing nice guy. They came to Turkey to get married with Sezen’s family in attendance. They will have another wedding in the U.S. for Bob’s family. They have been together for 7 years after having met working in a plastics factory.
greek villages, roman ruins & cave churches
At 9:30, we head out for our tour with Selim, our fun-loving Turkish guide, age unknown. I think there are 14 of us, all told, plus Selim. As soon as he starts talking, I am putting in my two cents’ worth. He’s talking about Turkey and how it changed with Atatürk; since I just read about Atatürk yesterday, I know what he’s talking about.
Another cool Italian girl named Lisa is also chiming in. Soon we are all chatting amongst ourselves. I tell Lisa that I’m from America and am teaching English in Korea. She and her boyfriend are Italian. Lisa is very exotic; I love her style. She has a striped scarf tied around her black curly hair and some cool copper earrings with a turquoise design that she got at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. There is another Italian couple on board, and 3 good friends traveling together from Brazil: Cammilla, Andre and Bruno. I mistakenly think Bruno and Cammilla are boyfriend & girlfriend, but I find out later they are all three just friends from college. We also have in our group an older French couple (I say older, but they’re probably my age!) with two teenage boys, who for most of the day appear to be bored out of their minds. Of course, Sezen and Bob are also along.
Selim teases me, says, What, are you telling them your whole life story? I say, they’re telling me theirs too! That’s not fair! Selim tells us he has an “imitation” fiance; she’s from New York and he met her two weeks ago on his tour. I ask why she is an “imitation” fiance. I never get a straight answer from him, but through the day, I get the definite impression he met this girl, fell in love with her, and she is planning to visit him in Turkey. He wants to know how much a flight from New York to Turkey costs. As the day goes on, he is flirting with me and with the other girls. He’s charming and funny and full of good information. At several points he introduces me to various people as his “imitation” fiance. How many of these does he have?
We make our first stop at Mustafapaşa, an old village where Greeks and Turks used to live side by side until the population exchange of Greeks and Turks. This 1923 population exchange was based on religious identity and involved the Greek Orthodox citizens of Turkey and the Muslim citizens of Greece. Nearly 2 million people were impacted, most of whom were forcibly made refugees and denaturalized from their homelands. The town is lovely, surrounded by apricot, apple and pear orchards, and vineyards. The house where we stop is now a restaurant, but used to be a Greek house. A popular Turkish movie, or TV series, called Asmali Konak (Grape Arbor House) was filmed here.
Next, we visit some sunflowers and an old potato farm; the potato farmer hit stone one day in 2008 and the state began excavation, revealing some Roman ruins, including baths, graveyards, and mosaics dating from 200 A.D., along with a Byzantine church which was built on top of the earlier church.
Selim then takes us to see the ornate door of an Ottoman-era medrese, but the school is no longer used since public medreses, or religious schools, were outlawed when Turkey became a republic.
We then take a 3k hike in Soganli Valley, first used by the Romans as necropolises and later by the Byzantines for monastic purposes.
Here we see rock-cut churches galore. In the Snake Church, we see frescoes of Jesus, the apostles, the Crusaders and the snakes, which represent Satan. Interestingly, there is graffiti carved on top of all the frescoes, some dating from the 1800s! Selim says people carved graffiti who wanted healing from God from ailments or illnesses. Some of the frescoes were deliberately painted over with black paint, possibly to protect them.
Sakli Kilise (the Hidden Church), Kubbeli Kilisesi (the Domed Church), Yilanli Kilise (the Snake Church), too many churches and caves and frescos to count. It is a lovely day, sunny, hot and dry, fun. I love our group of vagabonds, love our trek, love the camaraderie and laughs. We walk down a gravelly path and I slip and fall, my leg with the bad knee collapses and crashes beneath me. I have barely thought of my knee until this happens; after I am a little more careful and guarded, a little more protective of myself.
We hike to a lovely spot with tables under shady trees, the Soganli Cappadocia Restaurant, and I order an omelet that arrives still bubbling in a small cast iron skillet. It is too hot for such a dish, but I let it cool and then enjoy it immensely. I talk with Andre the Brazilian who is currently living in Lebanon, working for the Brazilian Embassy as a secretary for political affairs. We chat about our laziness in learning languages; he’s been in Lebanon as long as I’ve been in Korea and neither of us has learned the language. He gets by with French and English, I get by with English and my tiny bit of Korean. All of us are happy in a lazy sort of way; the conversation is easy and the food is good. This is one of my favorite afternoons in Turkey.
In the end, we go to the underground city of Derinkuyu, where up to 10,000 people lived at various times, sometimes spending months at a time inside the earth. People hid here for various reasons, to escape the cold & the wild animals; later the early Christians hid to escape the Persian and Arabic armies who set out to destroy them. The air shafts were disguised as wells. We walk through narrow walkways, through stables with handles used to tether animals, through churches with altars and baptism fonts, through wineries and granaries, and through kitchens with blackened walls from the smoke. According to some archeologists, these cities date back 4,000 years to Hittite times, although they were used earlier to store wine and grain. Selim tells us the cities date back to 8,000 B.C., thus making them 10,000 years old. The cities are now 8 stories deep… there were fewer floors in the earliest years. Additional floors were added during the Byzantine period. Numerous huge stone doors were rolled into place for self-defense.
Some 37 cities have been unearthed in Cappadocia, and guidebooks say there are at least 100 more!
In the end, I realize I have been touched by the exotic on this day. Everything, the cave formations, the frescoes, the people, Salim, the landscape, yes, everything delights me. This place is most congenial to my temperament. It promises happiness, romance, it seduces. I long for love here and I find it in this place, with these people, these fellow nomads.
I also feel a sense of the sublime here. Nature is at its best, and people over thousands of years have inhabited this place, fueled with a sense of passion for their beliefs in Christ. They dug holes in these rocks, made churches where they could worship, where they could survive the onslaught by people bent on destroying them. I find awe and inspiration thinking of these early Christians and their determination and faith.
This is also a place where I want to possess beauty. I want it to be all mine; I want to take it with me forever, to hold it deep inside of me. I take too many pictures to count, hoping to capture some of what I feel. But the camera only snatches a weakened version of the real thing. It doesn’t capture the feeling, the experience, not really. Sometimes I think the camera actually makes me lazy, makes me not bother to notice things closely enough.
The tour ends and people are dropped at their respective hotels. Before she goes, Cammilla gives Selim a bright green Brazil World Cup t-shirt. He’s very excited about the shirt. I am sad to see this group depart. It turns out it is the best group of all of my tours, but of course I only find this in retrospect. I especially love the Brazilians and the Italians. I very much like Sezen & Bob as well, but they will be with me tomorrow as well.
rakı under the stars
I find my room at the Antik Cave Hotel sweltering when I return. I try to lie down and nap, but it is too hot and stuffy.
I instead sit on the terrace for an hour writing in my journal and watching the sunset. While I’m up there, one of the guys who works at the hotel is watering the lawn. Funny thing. He is wearing the green Brazil World Cup shirt that Cammilla gave to Selim! Selim sure passed that off quickly! After a while, I shower, put on a blue and cream Moroccan-tile-print dress that I love and walk down the deserted hill to the Dimrit Restaurant, which Selim has highly recommended.
Oh my god! How can I describe the experience of this place? Two terraces, one overlooking the other, and both overlooking the town of Ürgüp below. Quiet and peaceful. Celtic music by Canadian Loreena McKennitt playing in the background. The head waiter, absolutely adorable, brings me a tray of starters in white moon-shaped bowls. I choose the cold mushrooms with fresh dill. Cool, refreshing, like the cool moon on this breezy night. Why is it that certain things stand out like an oasis in a parched desert? That dill! Every taste is like an aphrodisiac, enticing and delectable. Dill like cool mint in my mouth, so fresh! How, I think, how can I be so excited about dill? Is it just the setting, the music, the breeze, the stars?
The menu prices are quite high, so I initially pass up a glass of wine, which I want dearly. Yet. Once I sit in this romantic spot, soaking up the view, feeling the ambiance, listening to this music, and tasting this unbelievable dill, I cannot resist having a glass of red wine. A thought comes to me: This is such a perfectly romantic spot. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I was on a date with someone amazing, someone who set my heart on fire?
But. I ponder. Too many times, I have been out to such perfectly romantic places, and they didn’t deliver. During my long marriage, my husband may not have been romantic like I wished he would be; instead of him talking of his love for me, his passion, he would talk of the kids, or the house, or some other mundane thing. Or, later, after Mike & I separated, I would wish my date to be more romantic, or more into me. So often, the other person dashes your expectations of what a place like this should be, how you wish the evening to unfold. Sometimes, you are with a person who you’re unsure about and so you feel anxious throughout.
I think of R, and how everything with him was extraordinary, amazingly fun and romantic, how we connected on so many levels and how much chemistry we had. We always laughed together, and got each other’s humor, and he was crazy for me and me for him. To have him with me in this place during the time we were together would have been nothing short of astounding. But. We are no longer together and this is an impossible thing.
I think of Jacob on Valentine’s Day in 2009. The night before he had gone to a meetup at a bar and he had an amazing time and I couldn’t understand why, when we had such a nice thing going, he felt the need to go to these kinds of meetups. I figured he was always looking to meet someone younger. We were driving to Jaleo in Bethesda, Maryland and we had a huge fight and our relationship almost ended. But we didn’t end it then, we salvaged the night, and he was sweet and romantic and it finally felt like he was ready to fully let me into his life. The night ended up being one of our best ever. Yet. The date ended, and we ended, three months later, in May.
I think of more awkward dates, where I wasn’t really attracted, or I was attracted but I couldn’t tell if he was, where I felt bored, anxious, unsure, awkward. And it hit me that, so easily, a man can ruin a place like this.
I feel romance here, yet I am all alone, and it is still lovely beyond words. Maybe, just maybe, I am beginning to love myself, beginning to love being in my own company; maybe I am learning to thoroughly enjoy myself even without having anyone else here.
Funny thing, this. Because as I am sitting here in this place, all alone but incredibly happy, getting tipsy from the wine, the head waiter hovers around me. He is asking me questions about myself, telling me he lives here in Cappadocia and he loves it with all his heart. I finish my delectable dilled mushrooms, and when the sea bream arrives I am in full conversation with him and I am too distracted to bother pulling out the skeleton and its array of thread-thin bones. I no longer care about the food, because a little romance has found its way to me. He is interested, it is clear; he doesn’t leave my table-side except to bring me a CD of Loreena McKennitt. We talk and talk, each equally fascinated by the other. Soothing, delicious. He asks me if I have tried rakı yet. This is a non-sweet, anise-flavored spirit consumed in Turkey. I say no. He brings me some clear liquid in a small glass, and when he pours water in it, it turns cloudy. It tastes like licorice. We reveal our secret lives to each other as I finish my rakı. I am happy beyond what I have known in months.
We talk more, flirt. He says he will drive me home; I protest that he has to work, I am fine, it’s only right up the hill, but, in the end, I don’t protest too much. We get in his car and we drive up toward the Antik Cave Hotel and I see some lights up higher on the hill. He tells me it’s a disco and we park and venture in; it’s deserted, but the lights and music are pulsing as if it’s full of dancers. After, we take a drive. I tell him that it has been so lovely to talk to him, that in Korea no one even looks twice at me; I tell him that in Istanbul, in two days, I surprisingly encountered three different guys who wanted to kiss me. I told him they all wanted to meet me later but I never went back to meet them. He looks at me intently: I want to kiss you. You have beautiful eyes and I want to kiss your lips. He pulls off the road. We sit and look at the stars and he tells me he just came to this spot last week, all alone, and drank a beer. We kiss. We get out of the car and stand out under the stars and the stars are above and all around us in this place; they’re dancing. Like the disco lights, like my heart. The night is all around us, swirling around us on the breeze, there is a moon but I don’t know if it is full or not. I just don’t know. My heart feels as full as if there were a full moon. We are here, in this land of cave dwellings and churches and rustling poplar trees and I am loving everything. Everything.
Back in the car, his boss calls him and wants to know where he is. He’s been gone from work a long time. He has to get back. I’m really fine with it. I go back to my now-cool room at the Cave Hotel and sleep, windows open to the world, to the elements, to the breeze. I think of the romantic evening, the Dimrit, the dill, the head waiter and how sweet he was. I realize I’ve forgotten his name. 😦
I sleep. Bliss.