Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012 - 1 comment

Converse in the Land of Plastic Slip-Ons

This morning when I walked out the door, I saw a bright turquoise scrap of fabric lying on the ground beside the car. There were leaves tangled up in its threads, and the elegant silk was full of snags and holes, inflicted, no doubt, by one of the neighbourhood strays. I sighed. It must have fallen out of my bag as we were unpacking the car in the dark last night. The scarf, while pretty, had been purely a pity-purchase. “Well,” I thought, “there’s fifteen lira gone to the dogs.”


Living where we do, within easy driving distance of the Mediterranean, several gorgeous waterfalls and the ruins of countless Roman cities, my roommate and I are always looking for excuses to take weekend day-trips. Last spring, after reading about Köprülü Kanyon - a narrow gorge where a still-traversable Roman bridge spans the width of the Köprü River - we hopped in the car one Saturday and set out to see it for ourselves.

The trouble with our little road trips is that getting on the road early is not our forte, and once we’ve set out, we like to stop at every little distraction along the way. Roadside honey-sellers and strawberry stands, bakeries selling heavy Trabzon bread from the Black Sea, statues of larger-than-life animals - all are acceptable excuses for a snack break or a photo stop. As it was, we got off to a late start (the luxury of Saturday) and by the time farming villages and orange groves had given way to pine-blanketed mountain and glimpses of the seafoam green river, it was well past lunchtime.

When we reached the town of Beşkonak, home to twenty or so rafting companies lining the riverbank, our best Google Maps guesstimate told us we still had a good fifty kilometres to go. Since we didn’t know if there would be food up ahead, we decided it would be best to fill up before reaching our destination and settled in at a table overlooking the river at one of the town’s fish restaurants.

The fish - trout rubbed with garlic, wrapped in laurel leaves and grilled over the fire - was delicious, and after a steaming cup of Turkish tea, that pleasant post-meal drowsiness set in. As we chatted with the proprietor and amused ourselves watching groups of rafters struggle to get their life-jacket-clad selves into the boats without taking each other out with their paddles, rain clouds that hadn’t been in the sky when we’d set out began to roll in. Another cup of tea seemed the best way to wait out the drizzle, so we sat a little longer, comfortable under our shelter and enjoying the view.

In the end, thinking we still had quite aways to drive and wanting to be safely out of the mountains by dark, we decided to declare the riverside restaurant the “destination of the day” and head for home. “It’s close enough,” we told ourselves. “We’ll come back.”

As so often happens with places that are “close to home,” it took us another two years before we finally headed back to Köprülü Kanyon yesterday. Some friends had visited there recently and they raved about the dramatic setting. This time, armed with snacks, overnight bags (in case there was so much to see that we decided to stay) and another friend by our sides, we got off to a (slightly) earlier start and determined that this time we’d make it all the way.

Our stomachs got rumbly right about the same spot as last time, so we stopped in Beşkonak for a rather familiar meal and view, though this time without the bustle of activity as it is just barely spring and far too early in the season for rafting. After lunch (but no tea - apparently it was too early in the season for that, too) we set off again for the canyon, and were surprised when, after driving no more than three kilometres, we came upon a sign for the canyon turnoff. (Surely there must be new signage since two years ago, or they fixed a glitch in Google Maps, because it’s always their fault, and never the navigator’s!)

Rounding a corner towards the river, we found ourselves behind two tractors waiting to cross a short stone bridge. “Is this it?” my roommate asked.

I strained to see the bridge. “It can’t be. It looked so much bigger in the pictures...”

But sure enough, as we neared the entrance to the bridge, a sign proclaimed that this was indeed the famous “Oluk Bridge,” built by the Romans during the “antique period.” (Translation: very old. Second century AD, to be exact.) As we made our way across the (surprisingly short) span of stone, recently reinforced with concrete, we started to chuckle, and then full-on laugh.

The bridge was a royal Roman disappointment.

Sure, the scenery was beautiful. The river squeezing its way between the rocks a dizzying distance below, framed by tall cliffs and lush green vegetation, was certainly photo-worthy. And, yes, the twenty-two metre bridge was an impressive engineering feat, both in its arch design and the fact that it is still useable.

I’m a firm believer in the journey being more important than the destination, but this with the price of gas and the preciousness of a day off, this destination just wasn’t worth driving two hours for. Twice.

At that point, all we could do was laugh at the fact that we’d been so close two years ago and yet turned back. Had we asked someone at the restaurant, we would’ve driven the three kilometres, snapped a few photos, checked it off the list and not come back. I made a mental note not to give too much weight to the ravings of newly arrived expats who have only seen a handful of Roman ruins and declare everything as “must-see.”

There was, however, a redemptive turning point in our misadventure. A sign on the other side of the canyon informed us it was eleven kilometres to Selge, which previous research had told us was an ancient Roman city that is now home to the Turkish village of Altınkaya. While my roommate hadn’t been so keen on seeing “yet another Roman city” when we’d first set out, we decided we’d better make this trip worthwhile, so off we went.

The road - a nightmare for the carsickness-prone - wound ever upwards, rewarding us with a stunning new view at every turn. We were surrounded on three sides by snowcapped mountains, and at the higher elevations, cypress trees grew in between and out of curious rock formations that a posted sign likened to the “fairy chimneys” of Cappadocia, presumably due to their wind-whipped, column-like shapes. Goats munched and cavorted on the hillsides and here and there determined spring wildflowers pushed through the crevices of the rocks.

When we were still several kilometres from Altınkaya, we encountered a village lady in baggy şalvar pants and a loosely tied headscarf making her way slowly up the steep road with a sack slung over her shoulder. When she caught sight of us, she began calling out something incomprehensible. Assuming she was one of the overzealous “souvenir-selling vultures” we’d read about, we carried on. But as we passed her, I caught her heavily accented Turkish: “Selge! Take me, too! Take me, too!”

Shoving jackets and half-empty bags of chips aside, we made room for her in the backseat. She smiled a grateful, almost toothless smile and informed us that she’d taken her goats down to graze and was now returning to the village. (I assumed the goats knew their own way home.... We certainly couldn’t have fit any in the car!) It was still three kilometres to the village, she told us. I glanced down at her plastic slip-ons and wondered what kind of calf muscles this woman must have.

Her house was near the entrance to the village, and when we deposited her there, she pointed us in the direction of the ruins. A deeply rutted dirt road led us between broken-down wooden stables and humble stone houses with red-tiled roofs, many of which had boulders on top to keep the tiles from flying away. Sheep and the occasional cow peeked their noses through ramshackle wooden fences to greet the foreigners, and a pack of little boys with homemade wooden “guns” paused their slaughtering of each other to “Hell-o!” us as we passed. There were maybe thirty houses altogether, and an elementary school, but no market or corner store. Signs written in German and English outside several front doors told us that the villagers welcomed people into their homes for tea and ayran (a salty yogurt drink) during tourist season.

When we reached the imposing amphitheatre, we were instantly swarmed by the Teyze (“Auntie”) Tourist Welcoming Committee - a colourful gaggle of floral şalvar and sweater-vest bedecked ladies eager to show us where to park. Mismatched headscarves were tied under the chins of sun-darkened faces and gold fillings glinted from behind boisterous smiles. Each woman had a cloth bag or bundle under her arm. I immediately noticed that they were all wearing the same cracked plastic shoes our hitchhiker had been wearing, either in blue or in green. I wondered how often the shoe-seller’s truck made it all the way up the mountain.

We were greeted as if they’d been waiting all day for our arrival. In truth, they probably had. Thrilled to discover that we spoke Turkish, hands were clasped and names exchanged. When I introduced myself to Emine Abla, a shy, round-faced middle-aged lady in a green polka-dot sweater, she exclaimed, “That’s my daughter-in-law’s name!” And from that moment on, she barely left my side.

These teyzes sure didn’t look like vultures to me.

It was clear from the get-go that they were going to be our self-appointed personal guides to the ruins, and they’d clearly rehearsed for the role.

“This amphitheatre can hold 10,000 people.”

“Over there is the temple of Artemis, and down there is where the ancient bazaar was.”

And the obligatory teyze-esque, “Be careful, you’ll fall!”

The amphitheatre really was impressive. While the front wall now lies in a heap of stone blocks, save for a few engraved pillars, the rows of seats are still very much intact, with staircases rising up to the “thrones” from where royalty would view performances and competitions. The backdrop of snow-covered mountains increased the sense of drama.

Surprisingly fit teyzes in tow, we climbed to the top of the arena where the ladies pointed out various graves on the hillside, ancient wells long dried up, and their own houses. They were pleasant and kind, and I found myself glad to have them along to add colour and a human face to the experience.

“What do you grow up here?” I asked.

“Wheat,” came the reply.

“What about vegetables? Do you take tomatoes and cucumbers down to sell at the pazar?”

“Too cold to grow vegetables. Just wheat. And sheep, before the Sacrifice Festival.” I hadn’t noticed until then that, unlike most of the rest of the province, there were no greenhouses in sight. Just a few barns and several plots of striped land in the centre of the village. The Romans must have had a good reason for building a city this high up, but for the Turks who call it home today, its inaccessibility and inhospitable soil seemed to keep it destined to stay bound up in subsistence living.

“Getting drinking water up here is a real problem, too.” Yes, I didn’t suppose they could just pick up the phone and have someone deliver a nineteen litre jug within the hour like we do in the city.

What would it be like to live somewhere so isolated, where the simplest of tasks might take all day?” I thought.

When the ladies of Altınkaya had exhausted their tidbits of information about the ancient city of Selge, they good-naturedly posed for photos and stood quietly as we admired the view. Then, completely in unison, as if someone had given a secret hand signal, they all began to untie their bundles, revealing stacks of silk scarves, tangles of beaded necklaces and knit woolen slippers.

Inwardly, I chuckled. These ladies were smart. They had us cornered on a platform at the top of the amphitheatre and it was clear that the only way out was to cough up some cash. And they were asking at least double the already ridiculous prices the same items go for downtown.

“This blue matches your eyes.”

“Come look at mine!”

“I’m old and poor and have no other way to put food on the table.”

The thing was, while I hated being manipulated, they really had won my sympathy. In spite of my normally merciful nature, years of living here have made me somewhat calloused to the tape-recorder mumblings of beggars and the dirty-faced kids selling roses and Kleenex in the park. But looking around at the village’s rundown shacks and forgotten-by-time poverty, I could hardly blame these women for looking at us with lira signs in those kind but desperate eyes.

No wonder they sit around waiting for tourists all day.

In much the same way that an owner coos to his dog, “Okay, you’re going to have a bath now” we used our best “oohing and aahing voices” to make a plan in English to divide up our purchases and try to buy something from everyone. Headscarves and doilies were definitely not high on my list of gifts to bring home, but I managed to find a necklace I might wear, and a beaded bracelet for a friend.

Having already spent more than I wanted to, I turned and realized I hadn’t bought anything from sweet Emine Abla. Nothing in her outstretched, sandpaper hands really appealed to me, but I chose a bright turquoise silk scarf anyway, and for my fifteen lira was rewarded with a broad smile that made her dark eyes twinkle.

When we’d made our purchases, there was a little more pleading and attempted arm-twisting, but in the end they politely accepted our “no”s. As soon as the bundles were retied, we were switched out of the category of “customers” and back into “friends,” and they happily chattered away all the way back to our car, careful to make sure their guests didn’t slip on the rocky path.

Regrettably, we had to turn down their offers of tea as there was no way we were going to try to navigate that switchback road down in the approaching darkness. Thus began the ritual kissing of withered hands and leathery cheeks. But when I got to the most wrinkled face in the bunch, she turned her face away and spat, “You didn’t buy anything from me.” With that, she squared her bony shoulders and huffed off towards home as quickly as her frail frame would take her.

Turks are famous for “kus-ing” each other - getting offended to the point of not speaking - but I’d never been kus-ed by someone I didn’t even know, and I wasn’t sure quite how to handle it. Shaking it off by telling myself I can’t hope to please everyone, I carried on with goodbye-ing.

As we pulled away from the ancient city of Selge, our band of teyzes waved us out of sight before returning to eking out their small existences against the backdrop of history. Aways down the muddy lane, we passed The Old Lady as she walked through her gate. I waved and gave her my friendliest smile, but she turned defiantly towards the house, her bundle of unsold trinkets under her arm.


Fingering a hole in my tattered silk scarf, I pictured Emine Abla’s warm face. After I’d bid farewell to all the ladies, I’d gone back to plant one more kiss on those smiling cheeks, finding myself genuinely sad to say goodbye to her. Maybe when it’s warmer I’ll go back and stay for a week and let her teach me how to milk goats.

I wonder how long fifteen lira worth of coal can heat a little stone house on the top of a mountain. And how long it will be until the next carload of tourists pulls into Altınkaya.

I hope that car arrives before the next snow.

And I hope someone in that car buys one of The Old Lady’s scarves.

1 comments: have such a wonderful way with words, Jamie.....and the pictures to go along with the story are fabulous as well. I can well imagine your tender-heartedness in dealing with these ladies...thanks for another snapshot of life in turkey!