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Turkey: Place of My Heart

Chapter 1: Prelude

TURKEY | Monday, 18 August 2008 | Views [2034] | Comments [2]

The first time I went to Turkey it was by chance, but each time I return it has been by design. In 1990 I went on a grand adventure to Europe. I was 23 before I saved up enough money to go, and like many before me I headed to London. I lived for five months in a crazy ex-pat house with 23 other people from New Zealand and Australia. It was pretty crowded but I was lucky because I had my own room in the space under the stairs. It was only large enough for a mattress and a bedside table but it was mine alone. It was there that I befriended a girl from Melbourne and travelled through Ireland with her. A few months after our return, she went to Greece. I’d just finished a disastrous affair with an Irishman and decided to follow her. A few days after I arrived on Rhodos she took off for Turkey. I followed again, only to find out on the day I arrived in Istanbul that she was heading back to London. The Gulf War had broken out a few days earlier. I could see the naval ships anchored in the Sea of Marmara from the rooftop of my hotel, but I stayed.

That first night, I sat in the dormitory room of the hostel, and pondered my next move. I didn’t have long to wonder, as my roommates crowded in and dragged me off to the showers. It was a particularly hot July, and water supplies were running short. The hostel only received a water delivery once a day, and, as I quickly learnt, getting into the shower took some doing. In the queue I met three English students. Jonathon, Melissa and Dan had just finished their degrees and were having a last hurrah before settling down to the serious business of finding jobs. We talked about the Gulf and Thatcher, and our plans for Istanbul. By the time it was our turn to shower we were firm friends and decided to meet later on the terrace, before going out to explore.

Up on the terrace I watched while Melissa and Dan played backgammon. She was small with dark hair and vibrant eyes, and Dan was clearly in love with her. He was tall and wiry, but too shy to let her know. They played every day, and Dan delighted in the fact the score stood at 95 games to 80, in Melissa’s favour. I ate a quick meal and then we went out to see what the city had to offer. Sultanahmet was then full of seedy, run down pensions, hotels and hostels, but we didn’t care. The breeze flowing up from the Sea of Marmara was cool and refreshing and life awaited. We passed the Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya, determining to visit them the next day. All of us wanted to go to see Topkapi Palace, but for the moment, the nightlife was exciting enough.

There were people everywhere. Some going home late from work, while others, tourists and Turks, were coming out of the many restaurants on Divan Yolu, and yet others were selling food and knickknacks on the street. There were young boys and men carrying trays of pumpkin and sunflower seeds, pushing glass cabinets on pram wheels selling rice and chickpeas or kebabs and sandwiches. The park off Divan Yolu was full of tourists and groups of young Turkish men, sitting on benches, surrounded by the hulls of seeds that they spat out as they ate. Suddenly Melissa wanted to see the water, so we followed the tramline down to the waterfront.

Here we saw more people engaged in buying and selling. There were men hawking t-shirts, loose tobacco, sandals, tea strainers, pens, and batteries. The list was endless and the noise clamorous. Over the top of all the different cries we heard the ferry whistles blowing to announce their departure. What seemed like hundreds of people would detach from the crowds and hurl themselves through the gates in a desperate attempt to board. It was about 10 pm by now, and all of us just wanted to sit down somewhere and rest from the constant assault on our senses. We drifted with the crowd until we came to the old wooden Galata Bridge. Underneath we spied small teahouses and bars. Led once more by Melissa, we ended up in one of them.

The bar, such as it was, consisted of a tiny, wood lined room brightly lit with harsh neon lights. The ceiling was of normal height but with the tiny stools and tables it seemed grand and lofty. At first we were a bit apprehensive, as it was packed solely with men, all of whom turned to consider us for a long moment as we stood hesitantly in the doorway, before going back to their own conversations. All they served was beer, so we entered into the spirit and ordered. After a drink we were more relaxed and better used to the gentle up and down movement of the floor as the current underneath us swept against the bridge. Melissa’s ability to make new friends was boundless, and I quickly found myself in conversation with a giant of a man at the next table. In fact, all the occupants next to us were enormous. They understood no English and our Turkish didn’t extend much beyond ‘Thank you’ and ‘How much?’, but through hand gestures we managed to find out that they were professional wrestlers. We laughed at their descriptions of their bouts and kept drinking the beer that they bought us. By this stage we were accepted as just another group of drinkers and left alone by the other patrons.

Hours passed and suddenly both Melissa and I were desperate to go to the toilet. The smiling proprietor led us to a door off the main room. When opened, it revealed another, much smaller wood lined room with a tiny hand basin attached to one wall. We looked inside but at first could see no toilet. The night, bizarre enough until then, became even stranger when we located it. We had all seen and used the porcelain squat toilets at the hostel, but we were not prepared for the hole, cut out of the floor, that served in this bar as a toilet. My need was greater than my reluctance. As I enjoyed the relief I was horrified to realise I was pissing straight into the Golden Horn, and that there was a large water rat sitting on the beams supporting the bridge. It was too late to stop. All I could do was warn Melissa. After all, the rat hadn’t moved throughout my turn so I figured it must be used to it.

We staggered back up the hill to our rooms sometime before dawn. Our plan to be up bright and early to go sightseeing was ruined, but we met again on the terrace and set off to see the Aya Sofya. It was early afternoon and the queues were discouragingly long, so we went to the Blue Mosque instead. I’d like to say that I was inspired and awed by the architecture and history of Istanbul, but on this first visit I saw very little of it. The vibrancy and dynamism of the city that never seemed to stop took up all my time. One day Jonathon and I went to the Book Bazaar and got lost. A tiny rotund man appeared, and in rapid fire English he led us there, feeding us with pieces of simit. These round, sourdough circles of bread sprinkled with sesame seeds are sold everywhere in Turkey, year round. Unfortunately I have a wheat allergy, so I mimed eating the bread while carefully hiding it in my pocket for disposal later on. Another day we all got lost in the Grand Bazaar but had a wonderful time marvelling at the carpets and copper and multitude of things to buy. We tasted Turkish Delight in the Spice Bazaar and black mussels from a street vendor one memorable night, when we drank Black Sea cognac at a dollar a bottle. I can’t remember what we talked about, but in the morning our ferocious hangovers made it clear why the cognac was so cheap.

For tourists on a short visit Istanbul more than lives up to its promise. The city draws you in, teases and beguiles you. Everybody is your friend and time is liquid. It also overwhelms you. After a week I decided to head inland to Cappadocia. It took a gruelling 20-hour trip involving hitchhiking, walking, train stations, police, misunderstandings and buses. When I opened my eyes at six in the morning, there was a huge plateau on my left, banked by the cone shaped rock formations known as fairy chimneys. The early morning sun lit their sides, radiating the pink and golden colours of the rocks. We had arrived, at last, in Göreme.

Jonathon and I had set off from Sultanahmet the day before, planning to hitch the whole way. He was from the upper classes and dressed and spoke like a caricature of the English from one of the books I read as a child.  His aloofness had at first repelled me but his bright sun blonde hair and skin, tanned buttery gold, attracted me, so we became uneasy companions. He was trying to slum it over the holidays but his accent gave him away. I can only guess my imagined Colonial past drew him to me.

Other travellers with guidebooks had told us to take a local bus to the outskirts of the city, to an intersection known as a good place to catch a ride. The bus crawled through the traffic, taking over an hour to reach our destination. We got off and stood at the side of a busy highway, flanked by ramshackle huts. This Istanbul was not the Istanbul tourists go to see. Here the poorest people, many of them Kurds fleeing the upheaval in the south and along the borders, come to seek their fortune, or a minimum of survival. The houses are known as gecekondu, makeshift accommodation erected overnight to take advantage of the law that allows them to remain standing if they are completed in the period between dusk and dawn. Made from scavenged pieces of wood, plastic sheeting and flattened olive oil cans, they have over the years developed into shanty towns, with no water, no schools and nothing in the way of infrastructure.

We didn’t have to wait long before someone stopped. We hopped in only to be dropped off at a bus stop a kilometre further along the road. Buses were cheap and no one, it seemed, needed to hitchhike. After a few more frustrating attempts, when our progress was about six kilometres an hour, we decided only to flag down trucks, guessing they might take us further. Our luck was in, and we clambered up into the cabin of a truck heading southeast. At first I was standoffish, not wanting to get too friendly with the two men in the cabin. This proved impossible, as Saleh, one of the men, happily chatted to us in Turkish, telling us of his life in a small village and rise to being the owner of a fleet of seven trucks. He had a small wiry build, with thick dark eyebrows above a hawk-like nose, and high sharp cheek bones. He wasn’t that much taller than me and I soon fell into conversation with him. Using a form of Tarzanci English, ‘me Pip, he Jonathon’, and my tiny pocket dictionary, we learnt that Saleh was heading to Ankara and would make sure we got there.

The truck crawled along through the fine yellow dust that blew across the road. After a few hours of not getting anywhere, we stopped for lunch. When we set out at nine that morning we expected to be far along our journey by then, but were only at a truck stop a few kilometres outside of Izmit at two o’clock. Still, it was an experience, so we followed Saleh into the restaurant and looked at the food on offer. There were white beans in a tomato-based sauce, wide fat green beans in the same sauce with small pieces of meat hiding among them, and a stew-like meat dish. I chose the latter and accepted the offer of a beer. In my jeans and long sleeved T-shirt I was dying from the heat, and easily drank another beer after the meal. Even though it was high summer I’d heeded advice about dress codes and found it led to great respect from, and absolutely no trouble with the locals. When we hopped back in the truck I regretted having those drinks, but we both felt we had to, because Saleh was being so nice to us and it made him happy.

Not long after, we arrived at Izmit and were dropped off at the bus station. Somewhat confused, we followed Saleh to the ticket offices and waited while he asked about the prices. I was becoming uneasy, because I’d thought we’d just drive straight to Ankara and then take our leave. In order to allow Jonathon to question Saleh about his intentions, I said I was going to the toilet. Saleh came with me, and was waiting outside when I emerged. He refused to let me pay the small amount charged, and then led us off to a shady spot to drink tea. Again using the dictionary, we finally found out that the truck was going in a different direction, so we were all going by bus. This caused a real problem, because we had told Saleh, when he asked, that we didn’t have any money for a bus. We thought we could hitchhike and that’s what we wanted to do.

He insisted on paying, which made me feel awful, and wouldn’t let us go off alone. Jonathon resigned himself to waiting for the bus, and just going along with Saleh. I have never been a patient person and felt I would go crazy from all the waiting. The dictionary was no longer an inspiration for further conversation, so I could either sit in silence and drink more tea with Saleh, or go for a walk. When I got up to look around, Saleh came with me. Where was I going, he wanted to know. Was I hungry, did I want food? As I couldn’t be by myself I convinced Jonathon to come and sit in the now less ferocious sun and play some backgammon. We’d got into the habit of playing up to 30 games a day, and I wanted to advance my lead. Seeing that I had a male escort, Saleh stayed inside the bus station while we went out to find a place to sit. All the benches were taken so we sat on the edge of the curb where the buses pulled in, and started to play.

Little by little, we were surrounded by an enormous crowd of male onlookers. Directly in my line of sight was an older, fat man, groping in his pocket to fiddle with his genitals while fingering his worry beads. I didn’t understand why everyone was watching us, but I wished they’d go away. All of a sudden Saleh appeared. He was extremely agitated, flapping his hands in a negative gesture and saying something over and over again. We couldn’t ignore him, so we packed up the board and followed him back inside. After he calmed down a bit I understood that my being a woman and playing backgammon had caused the crowd to gather. Shrugging it off I decided to try to discover when our bus would come. Saleh smashed his hands together, over and over, until we realised that our bus had been in an accident and would be delayed. As we’d already been hanging around for several hours, we pressed him as to alternative means of transport.

Without another word he turned away and walked off. We scurried across the asphalt to find him getting into a taxi. Not knowing where we were going and feeling too weary to ask, I sat quietly in the back. When we pulled up at a train station my hopes rose, only to be dashed again. The next train wouldn’t arrive until much later, when I had hoped to be in Göreme. Nonetheless people were waiting patiently on the platform. Large family groups sat on newspapers spread on the ground, drinking tea and eating tomatoes, peppers and hunks of fresh bread. Judging from the waist high grass growing on the tracks and the flocks of sheep grazing, I doubted whether trains actually stopped there.

Back we went to the bus station and at last boarded a bus. I dozed on and off, opening my eyes from time to time, only to see bright lights and small shops in towns that began to look like one another. When we arrived at the old bus station in Ankara I was fervently looking forward to saying goodbye to Saleh, and getting on with my trip. He was the nicest, most helpful man you could meet, but I felt restricted and inhibited by his constantly chaperoning me wherever I went. I also didn’t like not knowing what was happening to me, or where he was taking us and why. So when he offered us tea and settled in for what looked like a long wait, I could take no more. Brusquely informing Jonathon of my intention, I stalked off in search of someone who spoke English.

Despite the time, at three o’clock in the morning the bus station was up and running. Any number of young men were willing to help me and by the time I returned, I was escorted by a group of about twenty five men, all prepared to protect my honour. It was mortifying, there was Saleh, with his sweet open face, being accused of all manner of nasty things. I could only feebly point at him and say in Turkish, ‘He is my friend, he is a good man’, to try to defend him. I had just wanted to know why he was waiting, and whether he intended to accompany us all the way. Instead I had a group of hotheads convinced that this man held evil intentions towards me. This unexpected turn in events had me worried. I am not a good liar, and we had lied about not having money. Unless I could calm things down I was scared the situation would get out of control.

Meanwhile, Jonathon told me he had taken some tablets earlier in the day to stay awake. He shrugged off my concerns, told me he felt fine and that I was overreacting. Looking at him, standing there in his crumpled linen suit, looking like someone out of an old Hollywood movie, I began to feel an intense dislike for him. Before I could say anything, my worst nightmare seemed about to be realised. A tall, overweight policeman entered the fray. The noise level immediately subsided and he towered over Saleh as he subjected him to a rigorous cross-examination that left him looking terrified. My overactive imagination had led me to believe that Saleh had a reason other than just being hospitable in waiting with us. I was wrong. He lived in a small village outside Ankara and would have to wait until five am for his bus. Apologising as best I could, I let myself be led away by the policeman, hoping Saleh would forgive me.

Certain we would be in trouble, I was amazed when the policeman led us to a bus marked Göreme and urged us to board. In poor Turkish I managed to stammer,

“Money? What about money for the tickets?”

“No money” he insisted, “Go! Go!”

“But why,” I wanted to know. He drew in his stomach and stood up straight. Hand to his heart, he loudly proclaimed in English, “Me Turk!”

Once on the bus, I thought for a while about the way things had turned out. Here we were, foreigners in a country of people who were not rich, and yet those we met had cared for us in a way unknown back home. Even though I hated the way I was always being looked after, as if being a woman I wasn’t capable of looking after myself, I was deeply touched by their friendliness and concern. This extended to the bus assistant, who put me in the charge of a group of women. At each toilet stop they took me to the bathroom, waited outside my cubicle, paid the fee and then delivered me safely back to Jonathon. Just as I was drifting off, basking in this feeling of well being, I was jolted violently to awareness by a hand on my breast, playing with my nipple. It happened so quickly that in the seconds it took to shake Jonathon awake I already began to think it must have been a dream. However the feeling of those fingers remained, and I knew I hadn’t imagined it.

Jonathon’s summer hiatus was over, and it was with little regret that I waved him off at the Göreme bus station. I had found a job in a pension owned by a local family, and decided to stay. The owner, Ibrahim, was in his early thirties and was single. Like Saleh, he wasn’t very tall and had the strong wiry build that I came to learn was common to the peoples of central Anatolia. He always dressed in jeans and a long sleeved shirt, never short, and spent a lot of time sitting quietly and enjoying life. After an initial fear that he was looking for more than a worker, we established an easy relationship. In the mornings we would prepare breakfasts together, and I would tell the guests about the walks to take and tours to do. Afterwards, on the days she wasn’t working in their many gardens, his mother Haviş would come down to the courtyard and together we would sweep away the leaves and dust, change the beds and clean the bathrooms. Dressed in the typical village outfit consisting of loose highly patterned pants, multilayered tops and a headscarf, Haviş spoke no English, but in the lilting Göremeli singsong she would direct my work and gently urge me to do better. She worked incredibly hard but always had a ready smile, showing off the few teeth she had left. Although she was only in her 40s, like most of the village women, she looked about 60, weathered by working in the fields most of the year.

His father Mihtat came home for tea in the late afternoons, and told me about the ten years he spent in Germany as a guestworker. He was burlier in build than his son, and I never saw him without the same hand knitted sleeveless vest worn over his long sleeve check shirt, with the sleeves carefully rolled to his elbows. Talking with him forced me to dredge up the German I had learnt at school, but over time we developed a hybrid Turkish-German that worked quite well.

Most of the time I was free to come and go as I pleased, provided I took Hicran, Haviş’ youngest daughter, with me. I could see from her delicate build what her mother must have looked like as a young girl, with thick brown hair and big, expressive brown eyes. She was 11, meaning she was in her eleventh year, and was fascinated by me. In the afternoons she would come to my room and delicately pick through my scarce belongings. She only had a couple of dresses worn with layers of under garments, so my backpack was a positive cornucopia of delights. She helped me with my Turkish, and in exchange I would give her the items she most coveted. In the evenings I would hear her calling, “Pip, Pip! Come!” and would go upstairs to eat with the family. They rarely ate meat, it was too expensive, but we feasted on pickled tomatoes hot enough to blow your head off, thick hearty lentil soup, and potatoes roasted in the oven that doubled as the heating system as the days grew colder.

After the guests had scattered into the landscape, I spent the mornings visiting with the women and the afternoons visiting with the men. Being such a small village everyone knew everyone, and no business was private. I drank tea in the houses of the people relocated by the government from their ancestral cave dwellings. Away from the centre, located behind the post office and the bus station, these houses were square and made of brick. All showed signs of adaptation, as none had originally been built with the high walled gardens that allowed the women to work out of sight, nor adequate heating. Talk centred on marriage and children, and nothing was hidden. I knew the names of the girls forced by pregnancy to marry quickly, of the women whose husbands had left them for another when they couldn’t bear children, and those who were beaten. All of us were busy with handiwork, the women crocheting complex and detailed edgings for their scarves or larger edgings for curtains. I struggled to complete a jumper for my brother, with everyone inspecting my progress and helping me through any difficulties.

In the afternoons and some evenings, Ibo, as Ibrahim was known, and I would walk the museum road to Ali’s place. Ali was an old friend of his, and owned a cave house on land designated as a national park, so he couldn’t open as a teahouse as he wanted. Instead it served as an unofficial meeting place. The men drank tea and chatted about money, farming and tourism. I was always included in these conversations and had no difficulty switching from being with the women to being with the men. Despite their hard lives and lack of opportunity they weren’t envious of me. They judged me by my nature, found me pleasing, and accepted me.

At least once a week we went horse riding. Ibo had another friend, Fevzye, a man in his late thirties who looked ancient. Some years earlier he had supplied a small foil of marijuana to a tourist who got caught with it on a bus. It was traced back to Fevzye and he spent four years in prison. If that was what had caused the premature lines on his face and the pain there, it had obviously been a very hard time. A silent, dignified man, he sometimes suffered from depression but was always welcoming.

The horses he ran were a rough lot. Most had been mistreated by their previous owners and were very unpredictable to ride. Those rides, though, were thrilling. We walked up and down the valleys, following paths no wider than a man’s foot, sliding down steep banks and stopping whenever we saw a tree bearing walnuts. The Turks eat them when they’re green, and I learnt how to hold two in my hand and crack them open to find the sweet flesh. My regular mount was a fussy gelding that hated being crowded and had an obsessive terror of small pieces of paper. Quite often I would find myself on the ground after he panicked and bucked as a small scrap blew by. But when we came to the flat I felt like I could fly, galloping through the surreal landscape of fairy chimneys and sculpted rock.

When I didn’t eat with the family we would go to Ali’s place. It was there that I first heard Pink Floyd in a way that forever changed my appreciation of that music. The entry to his house was through a curved corridor, carved from tufa, the soft rock that hardens on exposure to air specific to Cappadocia. One night, as we entered, golden lights were playing on the walls, and the words of “The Dark Side of the Moon” came floating through the air towards me. Coming out onto the veranda carved from a wall of rock, a full moon hung in the sky in front of me. It looked close enough to touch and larger than any moon I had seen before. It threw a grey light over the troglodyte dwellings opposite, making them look like part of a lunar landscape. On other nights the music was Turkish. Ali knew many local musicians and I would sit for hours listening to plaintive folk songs sung with great emotion, accompanied by the notes from a saz or ud.

One day, sitting at a table in the pension courtyard, writing in my diary in the early autumn sun, I felt conscious, for the first time in my life, of feeling happy. Not ecstatic, but calm, and somehow complete. This feeling and the inner landscape of both the country, and the people I discovered in the village of Göreme during that three month stay, have kept calling me back. At the time, lack of money and fear of the situation in Kuwait drove me back to Australia. I was determined to return but it took six years before I did, this time travelling through the country with my partner. Everything I had missed was the same, so we spent the next three years plotting and slaving, before embarking on a life in Istanbul. A deceitful school director and a rather serious economic crisis saw our return to Australia after another year but we had been well and truly bitten. This time, we knew where we wanted to go, and so returned to Kayseri, a central Anatolian city on the edge of the most fabulous place in the world.

Tags: cappadocia, goreme, kayseri, lisa morrow, travel, turkey



I like it very much.
It is very readable, very descriptive and encourages you to read on.
For me, your description also brought back quite vivid memories of when I went to Istanbul over 30 years ago -although for only about 5 days.
I look forward to the next chapter tomorrow.

  Peter Drury Mar 6, 2009 2:55 PM


Particularly enjoyed descriptions of street scene and its wild but friendly hubbub, and the bar with the wrestlers, climaxing with the rat in the toilet - beats anything I experienced in Africa! Your working life in the hostel in Goreme also fascinating - not many would make the opportunity to be so intimately involved in the domestic world.
Reading on now.

  Glenys Howes Mar 11, 2009 11:55 AM

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