Sunday, June 6, 2010

Sunday, June 06, 2010 - No comments

Road Trip Chronicles, Chapter Four: Afyon

Imagine you had a beloved friend that you hadn't seen in years. Once or twice you'd passed by her house on the bus, but time never allowed you to stop in for tea, and so you were left to press your nose against the window and imagine what it would be like to see her, to hear her voice, to listen to her heart....

That pretty much sums up the relationship I have with the town of Afyon. The first time I encountered her, she both frightened and intrigued me. But once I'd spent a week in her presence, she won my heart. And I've been dreaming of her ever since. I returned once a few years ago, but just for a day, and all that did was whet my appetite for more. Every time I take the bus home from Istanbul, it makes a stop at the Afyon station, and it's always torture to be so close and not be able to pop in and see my dear friend. But this road trip afforded me a long-awaited opportunity, and even though it was just for a few hours, I was out-of-my-tree excited to roam those colourful streets again. The town boasts a huge, imposing fortress set on the top of a massive rock. In its shadow is just about the most delightful Old Quarter you'll find anywhere in the country, with twisty streets and wooden Ottoman-era houses in a rainbow of colours. While at first glance, the place has an air of indifference, I have experienced in the past those precious moments where a smile, a cup of tea and a dictionary are all you need to form a friendship, if only for a day. And those streets are ever extending an invitation: "Come explore me, come hear my stories, come find out what's behind my shuttered windows and bolted doors." And I, for one, am happy to oblige!

Afyon's true name is "Afyonkarahisar," which means "Black Fortress of Opium." Poppies grow like crazy on the plains surrounding the town, and a third of the world's legally grown opium is grown here. But among Turks, Afyon is not known so much for its opium as for its kaymak - a thick, clotted cream. An inset in the Lonely Planet chapter on the town, entitled "Cream From Contented Cows" tells the story:

"Afyon's opium farmers rarely use the drug themselves, but they use every other part of the plant. The poppy seeds are sprinkled on bread and pastries, the tender leaves are good in salads and the leftover opium plants are fed to the cattle. The cattle become very contented and produce rich cream in abundance."

And rich it is. My favourite way to enjoy kaymak is in Turkish Delight. I always grab a sample at the bus station when passing through, and this time I tasted an amazing new (to me) variety - kaymak lokum rolled in coconut with Nutella inside - seriously amazing. I kinda finished off the bag before we'd even made it out of town...

The first time I visited this town, a violent, ethnic-hatred-inspired riot took place right outside our hotel within the first few minutes of our arrival. What a welcome! I remember watching from an upstairs window, feeling confused, intrigued, and a bit afraid.....thought likely not as much as I should have been. In the days that followed, we tried to sort out what had happened, but being that we couldn't speak any Turkish, we couldn't make out anything from the newspapers, and no one we asked was at all eager to talk about it.

Now, seven years later, with more background on the history of the city and a much deeper understanding of the situation in the nation, I was able to put some pieces together. Back in 1922, during the War of Independence, Ataturk and his army defeated the Greeks there in a battle that turned out to be a decisive turning point in the war. The Turkish Republic was born just a few months later, and Afyon has a proud place in history as a result. Approaching the town, we saw several war-memorials and a giant statue of Ataturk looming on a mountaintop. The spirit that forged the Republic is alive and strong today, and with it, it seems, comes the intolerance of those who are different that characterized the end of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the nation of the Turks. Such a conservative and fiercely nationalistic city has no sympathy for the minority group that lives in the eastern half of this country, nor for their grievances or their prisoners. Slogans we saw (and can now understand) scrawled on walls around town echoed the hatred I saw on the street that day, and the sense I got as we wandered about is that this is not a place that embraces outsiders easily, if at all.

We arrived in the evening and collapsed in our ghetto little hotel room, and after a good night's rest, were ready to take on the town. Our hotel didn't include breakfast, so we grabbed some apples and peanut butter from the cooler and then set off in search of tea. As if in keeping with the town's inhospitable facade, we walked and walked and couldn't find a single place to drink tea! (Trying to find a tea shop in any Turkish town ought to be like trying to find a Starbucks in Seattle, so this came as an odd surprise.) Finally we came across a pide (pizza-ish dish) place and asked if they had fresh tea, which they did. We enjoyed a few cups as we brushed up on our Afyon history (courtesy of the Lonely Planet) and then got ready to hit the town. And we were humbly surprised when, because we were his first customers of the day, the owner wouldn't let us pay for our tea! Okay, phew, we were still in Turkey after all!

Feeling less like unwelcome guests and with a much happier taste in our mouths, off we went to the Old Quarter. Now THERE is a place that makes my heart come alive! Besides the fact that it brings up all sorts of great memories of the friends with whom I first discovered it, around every corner is photo after photo just waiting to be taken. We spent a few hours roaming the streets, me never tiring of trying to shoot the same old staircases from a fresh angle, always trying to coax the hidden beauty out of the cracked walls and crooked old doors. Perhaps the current inhabitants are more aware of the drafty windows and the mold and the cockroaches, but when I look at those old houses, I see them for glory I know they still possess, and I am enchanted.

We came across a couple of interesting scenes during our wandering - almost as if they had been staged and were just waiting for someone to show up and appreciate them. (Pick me, pick me!) The first was the "kececi" - the maker of felt. The whole street was strewn with sheep's wool, and the guy was more than happy to show off his various felt creations. This one is a sort of coat to keep shepherds warm when they are out in the hills, and it doubles as a blanket to keep the sheep warm when they are giving birth. (At least I think that's what he said...accent was kinda tricky, and I am not up on my shepherd vocab!)

The town was apparently the second most important dervish centre in the Ottoman Empire (next to Konya, which we saw later on our trip) and the Mevlevihane Mosque boasted an impressive little whirling dervish museum. Members of this mystical sect of Islam studied and lived in these quarters, and the museum showed various scenes of them eating, praying, copying the Qu'ran and performing the mysterious worship-dance for which they are famous.

It must have been kite-making week at the local school or something, cuz everywhere we went there were kids running up streets and down hills trying to get their colourful creations airborne. I sat watching these two kids in particular, impressed with their determination to get theirs to fly. I was was especially drawn to the old man in the shadows, watching him as he watched them, filled with nostalgia and memories of his childhood, and probably wishing his knees were stronger so he could go run with them, too.

Afyon, once more you have drawn me into your mystery, capturing my imagination and yet still holding me at arm's length. You've afforded me shy glimpses of your beauty, but your pride demands that you keep me at a distance. I long to know your true heart, and to share with you mine. Perhaps when we've had more time together, you'll get up the courage to open your doors....