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The Turkish Horse Whisperer

TURKEY | Wednesday, 5 August 2009 | Views [5482] | Comments [1]

I have found a(nother) home away from home. Cappadocia truly is a magical place, especially once you settle into the local way of life, whiling away your days with horses and your nights with friends and homemade wine. Life here is good. So good, in fact, that I almost didn't leave.

May 1: Happy Wine

I met up with Zach, the friend of the restaurant owner who had easily convinced me to stay in Cappadocia at least one day longer with the promise of free horseback riding (see last post). He introduced me to his mares, happily munching away in a field on the outskirts of town, before bringing me over to the main ranch across the road. I had walked past it before on the way back from a hike and had gaped in awe at the free-ranging horses grazing the succulent grasses among Cappadocia's iconic caves and fairy chimneys. I had desperately wanted to meet the owner, simply out of curiousity. Thanks to Zach, I was now gaining entrance into one of the most interesting circles of people I have ever met.

When I first saw Ekrem, the ranch owner, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. He sauntered towards me like a veteran cowboy through saloon doors, but with a certain unidentifiable sensitivity; his face was leathery, the deep lines framing his mouth and eyes etched by years of kindness rather than hardness. His hands were just as weathered but seemed to be an extension of his entire persona, not once used in malice. A well-worn black cowboy hat perched atop his shock of shoulder length hair as if there was no other place in the world it could possibly sit. His ensemble was completed by none other than a matching black leather vest, blue jeans, and cowboy boots.

I couldn't take my eyes off of him. He looked so out of place in Turkey but simultaneously so at home on the ranch, the air thick with that unmistakable horsey smell. To quote the great Seinfeld, this man was an enigma wrapped in a riddle.

After making sure I wasn't gun-shy, he tacked up a horse and told me to take her out on the trails and come back whenever I wanted. I stared at him incredulously again; I couldn't imagine any other rancher in the world offering a complete stranger free rein (no pun intended) over one of his beloved horses. I happily obliged and took the sweet-natured mare for a jaunt around the nearby caves.

When I returned, I was greeted not only by customary offers of chai, but also by two new faces. Malynda was tall and carried herself in a way that made me think she was probably quite clumsy in her teenage years. She had an honest face and a somewhat ethereal way about her, thanks to her passion for the arts and all things alternative (she would have fit in well in Guelph). She was from the States but working as an art teacher at an international school in Istanbul. Clara, the woman sitting next to her, knew her through her sister, a dance teacher back in Istanbul; I later clued in that Clara was the one dancer that had so impressed me at the Turkish Nights show with her solo bellydance and Sufi routines. Since Clara lived in Cappadocia, she also by default knew Ekrem, and she and Malynda were there to arrange a ride for the next morning.

Malynda and I immediately hit it off and were soon talking as if we'd known each other for years. After marveling at Ekrem's random assortment of donkey-shaped mint dispensers and old photos and newspaper clippings, Clara suggested that we visit the pottery workshop beside the ranch. Since I'm still very much amused by playing with mud, I jumped at the chance to get my hands dirty. In no time, we were outfitted in oversized fuschia pants more suited for a drag-queen Santa Claus, laughing our heads off at the wobbling messes we had created on the pottery wheel.

(The art of pottery is a fine-tuned and in-demand one; clay pots are used often in Cappadocian cuisine. Stews are cooked right in the pots, which are then cracked open to expose their contents for the hungry patron.)

With the sun setting and our tummies rumbling, we made our way over to Ekrem's house, a 5-minute drive from the horse ranch. I couldn't help but feel like this guy had life figured out pretty well when I realized that his house was actually in a cave that overlooked a picturesque valley full of birds, trees and a bubbling brook. He told us to make ourselves at home and soon had us chopping organic vegetables for a huge stew dinner and sipping wine made from the grapes grown a stone's throw away. I suddenly had an overwhelming urge to take up a similar lifestyle, tending to gardens and animals and simply nurturing life.

More friends piled into his cave-house throughout the evening and we fought off the chilly temperatures by playing the spoons and dancing up a storm - and of course, indulging ourselves in the homemade beverage of choice, which Ekrem had aptly dubbed "Happy Wine".

On our way back into town, Malynda and I made plans to meet back at Ekrem's ranch the next day for a horseback ride. I marveled at my sheer dumb luck for having stumbled upon such an eclectic group of people and drifted to sleep, once again with a smile plastered on my face.

May 2: Galloping into the sunrise

I arrived at Ekrem's ranch this morning even before he did, and Clara and Malynda were over an hour later than the agreed upon time, citing the hard-hitting Happy Wine as the culprit for their delay. I've gotten quite used to nothing happening on time on this trip and since the beautiful landscape and several horses in front of me were a nice change from my usual waiting-for-hours venue of bus stations, I didn't mind the extra time in the least. I brushed down all the horses, played with the dogs, and checked out the pigeon coops, initiatives which later got me an open job offer as a ranch hand.

When a few other local friends finally arrived, we got on our horses and headed off onto a well-marked trail through Rose Valley - much the same as the one I had hiked a couple days prior with the stray hound. It was a different perspective altogether from atop a horse, particularly since I didn't have to remember where I was going with Ekrem in the lead. We wound our way through the trails, clip-clopped up the cobblestone streets of a quaint little village, and came to a resting point at the top of a cliff, overlooking the stunning vista of fairy chimneys and multi-coloured sheer rock faces.

On the way back to the ranch, Zach challenged me to a race and I immediately left the others to walk their horses back and we took off at a gallop. I hadn't galloped for years but quickly adjusted to my horse's pace - not that I had much choice, since Zach was "yah"ing his mare on like we were being chased by the hounds of hell and mine instinctively followed suit. I channeled all of my concentration into hanging on for dear life, lest a millimeter shift in balance result in exercising my travel insurance policy. For a gal with the need for speed, there is nothing quite like galloping on a horse and I arrived back at the ranch flush with adrenaline and wanting more.

My interest was further piqued by yet another intriguing offer, this time for me and Malynda to accompany Ekrem the following day into the nearby mountains to round up a massive herd of wild horses. Known for this throughout Cappadocia, he only makes the trip once a year and we happened to be there at the right time. Though Malynda and I had planned to take the bus to Istanbul that night, I know a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity when I see it and quickly convinced her otherwise, thus changing my bus ticket for the third time.

Later that evening, I went with Malynda to watch Clara dance in the 'Turkish Nights' show. Even though it was the exact same staged show as the one I had been to a few nights prior, I had more of an insider's perspective this time. Before the show started, Malynda and I hung out with Clara in the female dancers' dressing room and watched them get their costumes ready and put on their makeup. The room was thick with cigarette smoke and hairspray and punctuated with fits of giggles and typical girl chatter. Though it seemed normal enough to Malynda, whose adolescence was spent battling her sisters and mom for the bathroom mirror, it was a completely foreign scene to me. I watched with the same tabula rasa curiousity as I reserve for anything I haven't seen before.

After the show, the three of us met up with Zack and Ekrem and other friends of theirs at a local bar. As the night unfolded into billiards competitions and over-the-top strobe light dance-offs, I laughed incredulously at yet another of the hilarious situations I seem to find myself in day after day. As the crowd depleted, half of our group decided to crash and the other half (including yours truly) jammed into a run-down car to hunt for any noble establishment still kicking out the jams in the next town over. Unfortunately, we seemed to be the only ones still awake and eventually wound up building a campfire in a nearby valley and hanging out until the sun rose. I reminded myself that I had a mere few hours of shut-eye before another day of adventure with Malynda, Clara and our Horse Whisperer and, once again, crawled into bed during the muezzin's morning call to prayer.

May 3: Who's gonna ride your wild horses

On the hour drive from Goreme to Kayseri, I was like a kid on Christmas morning, my nose pressed up against the window in anticipation of the day's events. We arrived at a ramshackle home filled with several young kids running around and rather tough-looking men lounging around a large trailer. I quickly chose the visibly more friendly audience and joined in playing with the kids; at one point, the littlest one gave my braids a solid yank, causing his previously indiscernible grandmother to erupt in giggles and divulge her location, half-buried in thick blankets against a robin's egg blue wall.

With second and third helpings of obligatory chai in our bellies, we girls were signalled over to a clearing between the houses. There were three horses already tacked up for us, but none nearly as domesticated-looking as Ekrem's. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught Clara and Malynda looking nervously at each other as the horses bucked against their handlers. I strode resolutely over to my mount. Not that I was an expert rider by any stretch, but I sure wasn't going to play into the leering men's surely derogatory perception of us city girls.

In no time, we were up and off with Ekrem in the stoic lead. In place of the comforting fairy chimneys were wide open fields lined with snow-capped mountains, and in place of friendly strays were brutishly large herding dogs with vicious-looking spike collars that didn't exactly make me want to run up and hug them. Ekrem was sure to give the dogs wide berths; I wanted neither to be on a horse nor on foot around those things if they happened to attack.

When he felt we were safe enough to wander the pastures on our own and take in the mountain air, he galloped off into the distance. He only re-emerged with a distinct rumbling that soon erupted into the thunder of hundreds of hooves pounding the earth - the wild herd!!

Over the next hour or so, we were all hopped up on adrenaline and fighting to keep our own mounts calm, watching Ekrem expertly herd the horses towards the village as if there was nothing more natural in the world for him to be doing.

We were the last to arrive back at the village and although I was still psyched from seeing a real wild herd galloping across an open plain, my heart suddenly sank when I saw that the horses were now enclosed in a corral. Many were chill, but every now and then, one would start and send others rearing and whinnying in anxiety. Ekrem worked his magic, weaving daftly through the horses on foot to make his pick of the most beautiful and worthy of training under his hand on behalf of the interested buyer from the village. I felt rather conflicted; why would anyone want to take such a pristine thing as a wild horse and tame it? Malynda shared my sentiments but we tried to cast aside our biases and simply watch, as is so often the case during travels in a foreign land.

The farmers and Ekrem made their pick and I was simultaneously touched and heart-broken at the sight of the chosen mare being lassoed and eventually patted gently on the head. It was quite amazing how quickly they were able to calm her down. They released the others back into the wild and we untacked our horses and made our way back to Goreme, brimming with yet another full day's sights, sounds and feelings.

And thus, my time in Cappadocia had drawn to a close. As Malynda and I boarded the overnight bus to Istanbul, I snuck one last wistful glance at the skyline of the land of fairy chimneys, happy wine, and horse whisperers, wondering to myself when - not if - I would return.




I was Google-ing Turkish horses & I saw your photo of Ekrem. From anywhere I know him, even his back. I am proud to call so many people in Goreme friend & I have had the pleasure of riding Ekrem's horses many times. It is nice to know when I come "home" to Kappadokya, I have a little reminisce of my own horses more than 9000km away. I look forward to the day Ekrem & his brothers can come to my ranch & ride with me.

  merli Jul 30, 2011 7:15 PM

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