Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walk to Urgup

Mt. Erciyes, about 12,800 feet in elevation
seen from Ortahisar in Cappadocia.

The plan for the day was to take one of the little buses that run between Urgup and Ortahisar to the “tourist landing”, a place where the tour buses pull off and hoards of tourists walk over the rocks on both sides of the road. The landing is on a ridge just before the road drops down into Urgup . The view must be spectacular. The  volcano, Mount Erciyes, looms up in the east and valleys spread north and south.

On the way to catch the bus, I saw Jim, the neighbor showing off his new motor scooter to Ali and some of the other men in town. I stopped to chat. When Jim left, Ali drew a map for me, showing me the trail to walk to Urgup. Along the way is a trinity of rock churches; part of an old monastery, very isolated. “Probably no one will be there”, he said. Then gave me a cold bottle of water and sent me on my way.

The road going east on the side of the city government building was paved with small interlocking bricks and made for smooth walking for a while. It led down to a carpet emporium, out by itself in the desert, obviously more of a warehouse for the many shops in town than a tourist draw. The road turned to dirt, then a trail.

Late October, the days can be quite warm, and the shadows cool and pleasant. I had my black sweater which promptly came off and was a pain to carry. Drapped over my shoulder bag, it picked up those chubby little ‘velcro’ stickers everywhere I walked. 

Always the poet, Ali told me that after the carpet store I would find the churches with my heart. Actually, I didn’t have to strain that hard. Off to the left was a large rock outcrop towering into the sky, with well-beaten paths leading up to it. I could  see square holes in the rock. The monastery’s location was hardly a mystery.

I was alone, out in the desert, now two kilometers from town. It was quiet. The churches were cut into the rock, deep rooms four and five meters high, with carved columns. Oddly, the roof wasn’t that fragile. In the largest church one of the four columns had crumbled leaving only portions hanging from the vaulted ceiling.

There were three separate churches sharing “walls” with each other, set into a U shape. On the right was the largest, filled with pigeons that roost in the lip of the round half dome and who have left an impressive ring of guano and feathers on the dirt floor directly under it.  The walls had faint remains of what must have been bright and beautiful frescos painted in the dome and other rounded walls.

The church in the middle had two rows of columns spaced closely together. It was deep, and dark towards the back. A few open windows let in light that filtered down through a thick haze of dust.
Look closely, you can see a man
emerging from the corner.

The church on the left was badly damaged with a giant hole in the roof with no evidence of paint or frescos left. However, it does have a unique little sculpture, totally unexpected and unconnected artistically with anything else, carved into the original rock high up at the corner of two walls. It’s a human figure emerging from the wall joint, left leg extended as if running, the right one missing. In one hand it has a spear, in the other appears the faint outline of a sword. There is no face, just a tilted head, but it gives the impression of a feisty warrior emerging from the rock. At the same time, it’s a bit cartoonish, the body is thick with a large belly, the arms and legs thin. What would possess someone to carve that into the walls of a church? And further, the Muslims didn’t destroy it early on. They abhor the idea of a human figure portrayed in a house of worship, lest someone think you are worshiping a human being rather than God. That is what Christians do, and these were Byzantine churches. But this figure bears no resemblance to Jesus or any other biblical personage. It’s an enigma.

After a thorough and silent exploration of the carved churches, I hiked on over the rocks, down ever-narrowing paths until I could see a short mesa in the distance. A car was parked on the top and there appeared to be a few trees, an orchard, or a garden.

A small Turkish man was working in the garden, planting bushes from pots that he had lined up in the shade of some trees. He spoke a smattering of English and invited me to come over and sit. I sized him up. It’s never a good idea to get chummy with some strange man out in the middle of nowhere. I was cautious but he was smaller than me and I probably outweighed him by forty pounds. I wasn’t worried about him as an individual, it’s just that he might think because I was unsupervised by a man, that I was free for the taking. Although he was given to touching me as he gave me grapes off his vines and asking pointed questions like “Where is your husband?” I didn’t get the impression he would do anything forceful. And he didn’t. He grabbed me and tried to kiss me when I was about to leave, and he didn’t intend it to be a peck on the cheek. I made it clear that I was not interested and marched off across the prickly mesa.

I could see the “tourist landing” in the distance. It took a while to get to it as I was high up with fairly steep cliffs all round. Circling south, I came across a scattering of broken beer and wine bottles. People don’t get drunk in places that are difficult to get to, so at the edge of the cliff there was a narrow path, almost a staircase, between rock faces. I sure didn’t want to go back to that man’s garden and go down the way I’d come up!

At the tourist landing, a man gives rides on his camel while his wife sells cheap trinkets and his children play together on the rocks behind the shop. Across the road, on the other side is a whole shopping center of little vendors with cold drinks, clothing, and food. Giant tour buses have a wide area to park in and the rocks were drizzled with tourists. I crossed the road to see what must be so wonderful.

To start with, the view is fantastic. Mt. Erciyes rises on the other side of the Urgup valley like a big pointed witch’s hat with snow. Small and large farms take up any flat land between the town and the mountain, and up close there were three enormous fairy chimney’s. In geologic terms they are called hoodoos. (Seriously!)

Formed when a thick hard layer or even a chunk of hard rock is above much softer rock, the hard rock weathers at a slower rate and the softer rock is protected. Around the hard rock the soft rock wears away entirely leaving a tower with the hard piece on top. This part of Cappadocia is littered with formations like these. In places there are entire forests of towers.

In this case, the hard rock is lava on top of the tuff laid down ages ago by eruptions from Mt. Erciyes. The lava came from the later eruptions of less bombastic volcanoes.  The three chimney’s at the tourist landing were tall, thick at the base and very dramatic. Further up the rocks were other interesting formations and differing views. 

Constitution Day in Turkey, Oct. 29
I caught a bus into Urgup and had lunch at a little restaurant that advertised stew in pots, baked in a tandoor oven with bread dough wrapped around to seal the pot. What I got was a passable meal, the pot had no bread around it, and the salad was fresh with just a squeeze of lemon instead of dressing. A basket of bread came with the meal instead.

Monday, October 29th was Constitution Day, a national holiday to celebrate Turkey’s becoming a Republic. A huge banner with Ataturk’s picture on it hung from the cliff, the red flags of Turkey waved everywhere and patriotic music blasted from the plaza across the street. School children were out in droves, an official band played while the director sang, and dogs snoozed anywhere people wouldn’t step on them.

The bus back to Ortahisar was packed with noisy teenagers taking advantage of the opportunity for accidental full-body contact as we jostled along the road.

Sunlit column in the least intact church.

The emerging man.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Tandir Cafe

Evelien lives about half way down the side of the canyon in Ortahisar. There are two ways to get to the center of town from her house, the fastest, and believe it or not, the easiest way is to go to the bottom and take the staircase to the top on the other side. Or walk uphill to the Hezen Cave Hotel, and take streets from there to the plain above the town, walk around the edge of the canyon and eventually make your way into the center. For sheer exertion the staircase is the way to go. There are no gyms here in Cappadocia, the natural StairMaster is right outside the door.

The Tandir Cafe
Going uphill past Hezen Cave leads to a small park with a few trees, benches and some kid’s play equipment. A couple of small buildings and some tents for tables makes a nice concession stand. When Evelien asked if I’d been to Tandir Café in the park, I thought that’s what she meant. I discovered, walking home from the little grocery, there is another restaurant towards the lower end of the park. You don’t see it easily because it drops off the edge of the cliff down a set of stairs. All that is visible from the park is a wooden fence and a small sign.

Tandir Café is perched on the side of the cliff, the kitchen inside a hunk of rock that looks like a monstrous Hershey’s Kiss.  Below that, down several sets of stairs is the Lavobo, the WC, the restroom. There are rock stairs and pathways leading to tables here and there under café umbrellas, and a large wooden structure with roof and cushions around a low table. The owner is a plump woman with a sweet smiling face who works her buns off serving as well as cooking. More stairs lead further down the cliff to a flat garden area that may or may not be part of the restaurant. There are hidden gardens all over the place, used to grow fruits and vegetables, all are fallow this late in the year.

I ordered kofte, meatballs. I had no idea what the dish would look like, it could come with cream sauce, be just the balls and vegetables, or it could be soupy. Soup also came with it. I saw steam coming from under a vent in the rock and the lady showed me her Tandoor oven, hence the name of the café. She said she’s not cooking anything more today, the fire was going out already.

I chose the highest table not wanting to lug my groceries all the way down the hill and back up, since I still had quite a walk back to Evelien’s house. She brought up a large tray laden with small dishes and put them out in a neat order along with a plate and basket of fluffy white bread.  The dishes contained olive oil, some kind of dipping spice powder, cooked mild peppers in vinegar, crumbled cheese with herbs, and a dish of strong dill and garlic pickled vegetables. “Enjoy your meal” she said, and went back downhill to the kitchen.

Sometimes I am so clueless, I don’t even know I’m clueless. This was the meal? Surely not. This is just the start. Right? What was it that I ordered? I forgot after we chatted about the tandoor oven. But she never came back. I ate a piece of bread dipped in oil and powder, ate a few of the pickles, and enjoyed the crumbly cheese, took some photos of the view, washed my hands in the restroom, and eventually she came back with the soup. “Enjoy your meal” she said again.

Oh my. It was well worth the wait. Hard to find words to describe a good lentil soup. The spices, onion, garlic, the lentils, the broth, all blend so seamlessly there is only a new wonderfully complex flavor such that no single ingredient stands out. It was nirvana soup.

Open door to the WC, above is the kitchen

Slowly sipping and loving the soup, I finished and waited. More bread, a good sop of the bowl, a pickle or two, then she trudged up the hill with another large bowl, the kofte. Not like any I’ve ever had. The meatballs were perfectly round, the size of marbles, if that big, rolling around in a broth that used tomato for coloring, spices so subtle as to be indistinguishable, producing in concert a flavor I’ve never tasted before. Plenty of olive oil floated about in little red ponds between the mottled brown balls of beef and lamb with specs of rice and parsley. Nirvana kofte with a view, on a smooth autumn day when the sun was hot and the shade chilled.

I staggered home with my groceries, too full, ready for a nap, knowing the beasts would be waiting anxiously after 4 hours for their afternoon walk.  A little slice of heaven experienced, then, wham! Back to the real world.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Mormons and Muslims

Traveling around in Turkey, I am reminded of Utah, by much more than just the terrain. Utah was settled almost entirely by Mormons and only Salt Lake City and Park City seem to have a percentage of non-Mormons above the 1-digit range.

Turkey is largely Muslim with few other religions. In 1923, by treaty, the Christians were resettled in Greece and the Muslims there had to come to Turkey or move elsewhere. The ancient Byzantine Christian churches are now museums and highly touted, but there are only a handful of actual Christians in most towns. The Mosques dominate the landscape with their tall heaven-ward minarets and the sound-scape at least five times a day with the call to prayers. In Mormon country, every small town has as least one Mormon ward, with it's sharp pointed spire heaven-bound.

Muslim women's class on the Koran
Both religions value family highly and encourage, maybe even require through social pressures, that families have many children. The average Muslim family has 5 with some having as many as 10 children. The Mormons may top that.

In the more conservative Muslim groups, women are kept under wraps with layers of material over body, arms, legs, head and sometimes face. In the Mormon culture, women always wear dresses to church and much of the time otherwise, with emphasis on modesty. In the more conservative areas women are required to wear old fashioned dresses with long skirts, long sleeves and buttoned up to the neck blouses. Some even wear bonnets when outside. In both cultures women tend to stay home, have and raise children, tend house, and be good wives. Their social lives revolve around other women and children.

In the state of Utah it's impossible to find politics separated from religion, though once in a while someone will pretend it's so. Ditto for Turkey which prides itself on being secular, yet has in power now a President from a religious coalition party who recently jailed a very famous pianist for making a joke on Twitter about Islam.

The Mormon religion and Islam both prohibit the consumption of alcohol and smoking cigarettes. The Mormons are way more successful in enforcing those rules than the Muslims in Turkey. Muslims do better at it in other countries.

The small towns look so similar in both areas. Surrounding the towns are agricultural areas, farms, wood processing operations, mines.  The houses are large to accommodate the large (sometimes extended) families, the religious center is the main focus of the social life and dominates the town in size and position. People speak to each other in religious terms with trained phrases for only insiders know the deeper meanings. Both groups have a long history of reading their religious books regularly, to the point where many people have whole chapters memorized. Both groups spend a lot of time talking about and exploring the religious meaning and interpretations of their respective books and the works of their religious thinkers.

Utah has Bryce Canyon and Turkey has Cappadocia. Weird strange landscapes that are massive tourism generators.

Bryce Canyon, Utah

Cappadocia, Turkey

Friday, October 26, 2012

Kurban Bayrami - Feast of the Sacrifice

The woman I am house sitting for, Evelien, is a vegetarian, and she really doesn't like this Feast of the Sacrifice, where sheep are ritually killed with bloodletting. She warned me to keep the dogs away from all the blood in the streets, the innards and other offal from the butchering. I was under the impression the streets would be flowing red today with screaming animals, shouting people, smokey fires and boiling vats of water which usually accompany a butchering operation. But aside from the plaintive bleating of a single sheep, chained to a stone wall, I wouldn't have known it was a day different from any other.

Because it's a national holiday, people are off work. A number of cars are parked around in places where there are usually none. Some of the men took the opportunity to give their cars deferred maintenance, like tire rotations and an oil change. More people are wandering the narrow streets, the hotels seem full and the town center was bustling with tourist busses, though few stores and no banks were open this afternoon. The air this morning was filled with a smoky smell, but that could be from wood fires, it was quite chilly last night. The smoke smelled a bit of coal, still used here to heat homes. The trash bins were very full, actually overflowing, so the dogs had a heyday rooting around the dumpsters until I caught them and forced them to come with me on our walk. Even in the dumpsters there was no sign of a bloody orgy, it was mostly vegetable peelings, chicken bones, and bakery containers. 

Last night, at David's dinner, I had some interesting conversations with the other guests about the rituals of Kurban Bayrami. One, a New Zealander named Ruth, has been in Turkey for decades. She was married to a Turk and has a number of Turkish relatives who keep tabs on her. She is co-owner, with her brother-in-law, of a Turkish rug shop in Goreme the most famous town in Cappadocia. When they opened the shop, she didn't want to do the traditional "cutting", a sheep sacrifice in which the sheep's blood is allowed to run into the shop in order for it to become prosperous. At first, they had a few customers but no one was buying. She finally relented to family pressure to allow the sacrifice. As the sheep lay on the threshold bleeding to death, a European couple came up. She explained the sheep thing and the couple went inside to spend over 10,000 Euros on rugs during the next couple of hours. From then on, the shop has done very well, and is one of the most respected because Ruth is straightforward, unlike so many dealers who schmooze and charm, but don't always tell the real story about a rug. Since that first cutting, she has participated in many of these ritual sacrifices.

Ruth made an interesting observation. She said she's never attended a sacrifice without crying about it, but looking that sheep in the eye makes you connected to your food in ways most of us never experience, and you appreciate what the animal has to endure for your benefit. Most of us just eat meat,  taking its existence for granted, never giving a thought to the life that ended. 

Kurban Bayrami is a religious holiday and the ritual blood-letting is something that goes back to biblical times. I don't know how long people have been repeating the sacrifice of a ram caught in the brambles (provided by God) so Abraham would not have to sacrifice his own son. But as with many religious celebrations, for some people, it's taken on a life of it's own without a solid connection to its past. 

In Istanbul, I had a traveling partner for the day. Waifa was from Morocco. At 23 she'd never been inside a mosque until we went into the Blue Mosque. Yet, she told me she needed to return home before the end of October to celebrate Kurban Bayrami with her family. Her father had already purchased the sheep they would sacrifice for the celebration. Neither of her parents practiced as Muslims nor had they brought up their children in any religious way. Kurban Bayrami for them must be like Christmas for Atheists who use it as the excuse to play Santa and eat fudge. 

The food at David's was excellent, and it wasn't lamb or sheep! He's a marvelous, relaxed cook. When Jim and I arrived, he was still in his running clothes and needed Jim to peel the potatoes. He popped two fat chickens into the oven on high heat with garlic, slices of orange and lots of olive oil. After they cooked a while, he basted them with white wine and added dates. The sauce from all that was heavenly, as were the garlic mashed potatoes. Those two dishes and several bottles of wine was dinner. Then for dessert: fresh ripe almost mushy persimmons and coconut balls with brandy cream which one of the other guests brought. The conversations were interesting, all of the guests were single people living in Turkey or traveling around. Only one was a Turk and she runs the Hezen Cave Hotel. She will be arranging for me to go on one of the early morning hot air balloon rides. Jim says David is amazing, that he can actually land the balloon basket onto the flat bed of the truck that takes it away.
I definitely want to ride with him!

As for the man with his flock of sheep, we saw him out this afternoon on our walk, minus three sheep. Each one had a yellow ear tag and a number painted on it's back, so I suspect it's only a matter of time for the remaining four. Kurban Bayrami isn't over until Saturday night.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

No Turkey for this Thanksgiving!

For the last week, I've been taking the dogs down into the Ortahisar valley. Along the way, on one or both daily walks we see an older man and his flock of seven sheep. The man carries a long stick and is dressed in dark trousers, a white shirt with a dark vest, and on his sock-less feet he wears purple crocs.

He knows the dogs. I keep only Milo on the lead as he chases chickens, but apparently Neura also has an interest in animals, sheep in particular. She eyes them and they eye her as they move away quickly. She eyes the man, he calls her over for a pet, albiet a gingerly one, and she leaves the sheep alone. The Turks don't typically keep dogs as pets and most exhibit fear of them if they get anywhere close. Supposedly it's because there is such a mandate for cleanliness in Muslim life and dogs are seen as filthy creatures, vicious to boot.

Three girls who now know the delight of dogs.
Today is the sheeps' last day. I don't expect to run into the little herd again. This is the eve of Kurban Bayrami, the feast of the sacrifice. It's a little like Thanksgiving in the US except that sheep are the main dish in Turkey, not turkey! It's the fall holiday, to celebrate the harvest, and to remember Abraham's almost sacrifice of Isaac. People travel all over to visit their families so traveling this week is soundly discouraged unless you have to.  Thousands of sheep are being butchered today and tomorrow. A good portion of the meat is given to the poor, some is frozen and stored, but most of it will be eaten in the next four days.

It's a week-long national holiday, maybe the longest and largest in Turkey.

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?
This afternoon three pre-teen girls giggled and chattered outside the gate, wanting and being afraid at the same time, to see the dogs who were up on the balcony barking and wagging. I put Milo on his lead and let the dogs out. The girls, who have probably had only scary interactions with dogs were afraid to touch them,. "Choki" I told them, meaning OK, but they didn't warm up until Neura chased a stick I threw and then they all wanted to throw sticks for her. After a few minutes, they were happy to go for a walk with us, one of the girls took Milo's lead and the other two petted Zeno, who is always happy to sit still for that. We were joined shortly by Jim and his dog Daido, the one that Milo ran off with a few days ago. The girls had so much fun with the dogs but still would squeal whenever a dog did something unexpected like jump or bark.

The girls were from somewhere else (?), here visiting relatives, and staying in the hotel up the street. Between their few grade-school English words, and my three-new-words-a-day Turkish, we mostly just had fun with the dogs which didn't require elaborate verbal detail. When we got down into the canyon, the girls turned back, saying they had to go to dinner.

Zeno - now who couldn't love a mug like that?

Jim invited me to a dinner too, with a bunch of English speakers, some of whom come from as far away as Goreme and Urgup. There aren't many people living here who aren't Turkish. The host is a British pilot named Dave who rents a house here while he works almost daily taking tourists up in one of the hot air balloons that I see every morning floating in or above the canyons.

With all the loud baaaaa-ing going on in the walled yards nearby, I do hope we aren't having mutton for dinner!

A neighbor boy with his pet chicken.

Inside an abandoned cave home, with pigeon
nest boxes carved into the walls.  People keep pigeons
for their guano and nesting materials, fertilizer for the gardens.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


The first day I was in Cappadocia, I went to Urgup to buy shoes and see if I could find WiFi. It was well after lunch time and there was a nice little restaurant with an outdoor patio on the street side and a balcony with a few tables on the view side. I ordered some kind of chicken on salad that came, in the usual Turkish fashion, with a basket of delicious fluffy white bread.

The restaurant had good powerful WiFi and I was the only person hooked up to it, so it was screaming fast. Sometimes I 'm glad to have splurged on an Apple iPad, and sometimes I am disappointed in it. It never quite does what I expect but that may be because I'm not a Power-User yet. Or, spoiled with all the wonderful things a full-fledged Mac can do, I'm just expecting too much from it.

Apparently the thirty-something woman in a head scarf who had cooked my lunch expected too much as well. She pointed at the iPad and chattered away in Turkish at me. I shrugged, indicated (I thought) that I don't speak Turkish, so she simply spoke the same thing over and louder, thinking perhaps I couldn't hear either. The iPad has a translator so I typed some sentences saying I didn't understand and could she write some words on a piece of paper so I could translate them. I heard over and again, the words: fianza and francia. I knew from Aylin that fianza is fiancee, because she has one. And Francia could only be France, but I had no idea what the connection between them could be.

She wrote some words and I typed them in. Unfortunately the iPad does not provide the Turkish letters and it won't translate a word if it isn't spelled right. Only one of her words translated to anything at all, and that was "engagement".

The owner of the restaurant came by, presumably to see if his employee was bothering me, and he listened to her go on and on.....then he just walked away in the middle of a sentence to join some men who were smoking on the balcony. The owner's wife chatted with the woman but she didn't speak English, so there we were, a wall of non-understanding between us.

I showed her how the translator can listen to my words, and then translate them into Turkish. I encouraged her to do the same but she spoke so fast and wouldn't stop. The translator simply crapped out. I told her to say just one sentence, using the translator, but she didn't understand how it worked and immediately chattered hysterically again. How do you tell someone to wait for your signal, say only one sentence, slowly and clearly, when YOU don't speak but 10 words of their language? And I'm not sure how well the translator would have worked listening to Turkish......we never got that far.

I gave up. When I paid the bill, I asked the owner what it was that she wanted. He knew, of course. She had seen people from France using Skype and she wanted to talk to her fiancee. I'm sure she saw them speaking to people whose animated faces showed on the screen. Seeing me with the same device, she was almost in a panic to see her future husband and talk to him. What she couldn't possibly know is that he would have to have Skype as well, and be online at the same time, in order for her to talk to him. All she saw was magic, and I was the genie who could serve up her wish.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

House sitting in Turkey

Evelien purchasing dried fruit
from a vendor across from Ali's store.
Ortahisar is a tourist haven, with massive tour coaches parked in front of the Mosque, coming and leaving, dozens of them every day.

A man who goes by the adopted name of Crazy Ali has an antique shop. He probably could do a lively business, but doesn't seem interested in selling much. He prefers to talk to people and serve his excellent Turkish Coffee and tea in the little tulip glasses with two cubes of sugar and a tiny spoon. He also squeezes oranges for excellent juice. So far, after three visits with him, I have paid for only one thing, a book on Cappadocia. We now have a deal. Sometime, everyday, I will come visit him, and if it's not too busy he will teach me some Turkish. In exchange, I will teach him one English word. His English is quite good. He learned while in high school and has had ample practice over the last 50 years running his tourist businesses. At one time he rented the tower from the town and ran it as a tourist attraction. Now it is being "restored", but it would seem the government is tearing down more than it is restoring. The plan, according to Ali, is to turn it into a museum. Ali's store is directly across the street from the Mosque, and at the very edge of town. Literally the edge. Behind his place is a cliff face straight down to the valley. The street extends in the opposite direction and is populated by all kinds of stores and offices. There are several nut and dried fruit vendors, a wine shop, a lawyer and accountant, two or three bar/restaurants, a couple of groceries, hardware store, and a dozen shops selling stuff to tourists: t-shirts, handmade ceramic bowls and plates, clothing, jewelry, metal lamps, stained glass objects, etc. I don't know about other tourists, but I'd have a difficult time taking home things that might break easily in my luggage, not that I would have any room for that kind of thing. At the end of the street, tucked into the cliff face, there is an onyx factory. I haven't visited there yet, but I suspect it also caters to tourists with ashtrays, bowls, and figurines.

Evelien's house is perched on the hillside opposite the tower. A couple of days ago a large storm built up and it rained briefly. It happened at sunset, casting the most wonderful light on the tower and the clouds.

To get to the town's business area, we must walk downhill to the bottom of the canyon, then uphill a couple hundred feet to reach the plateau on the other side. Coming back loaded with groceries is rough on the downhill knees.

If we don't go uphill to town, the path leads further into the canyon where there are hundreds of caves once used as homes, and many pigeon caves (see the previous post). This is where the dogs get their daily exercise. Many foreigners walk their dogs in the canyons, and occasionally there are disagreements amongst the dogs with one or two getting hurt. The locals don't seem to like dogs or keep them as pets. Many are afraid of them and with good reason. Packs of stray dogs roam the hills and come into town at night in search of food. Some young men keep dogs for fighting and take them into the valleys at night for training, and fights too I suppose.

Most of the pet dogs have been taken from the streets but still have a "wild" side. A neighbor's dog, Daido, is one of those who races around freely, often going with us on walks. The problem is that Milo (pronounced Meelo) loves to race off with her. Evelien lets the dogs loose in the canyon, then puts Milo on a lead when we are in town so he doesn't kill any of the chickens and ducks. (He's known to do that.) Now that she has gone on her trip, I am alone with the dogs. Yesterday Milo took off up the canyon with Daido and never came back. I called for half an hour, then headed home to see if maybe he'd gone back to town. Daido danced up the road, so happy to see us, but there was no sign of Milo. I was almost panic'd by then. It just wouldn't do to come take care of someone's dog and then lose him!! Walking back up the canyon, a neighbor came down with her three dogs and Milo was with them. Now I know to keep him on a lead if Daido is anywhere around.

Evelien's other two dogs, Zeno (Say-no) and Nuera,  mind very well, stick together, and come when called. But Milo is young, still a pup really, and headstrong. I was told when my son was born that boys and dogs want to know only two things: what are the rules, and who will enforce the rules. Clearly, Milo is not convinced that my calling him has any rules attached, or that there are any consequences if he breaks the rule. So he's on the long lead now, until he learns who is boss.

Everyday, this is what I get to see on our walks in the canyons:

Cave Churches in Turkey

The town of Ortahisar, in the Nevşehir province, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey is quite famous for it's odd geology, the Rose and Red Valleys, and the carved cave churches. In spite of being on tourist radar, it is still a very small town where most people know each other.

I'm here to house-sit for Evelien, a Dutch woman who has three dogs and runs a walking tour travel agency. She caters to Dutch people, but gets customers from all over. She knows this huge area like she knows her own living room.
The small walled up "caves"
are the pigeon houses.

The day before she left on her trip, we drove, with the dogs, to the Rose and Red Valley. It is an area just east of Göreme and part of a large national park which, interestingly, includes many small towns and lots of privately owned garden plots in the moist valleys between the wind and rain sculpted tuff formations. 

I forgot my camera.

At first I was heart broken, but then realized it is probably a better idea to experience this unique area first, then come back later, when the light is right and concentrate on photographing it. Down inside each little valley there are the remains of cave homes and pigeon caves. 

The people in this area, over the last couple of centuries, have provided pigeon dwellings so that in the fall, when the pigeons migrate, they can collect the nests and all the droppings to fertilize their gardens. Over recent decades, the practice has dropped off considerably. Commercial fertilizers are more available. The poor soil, nothing more than eroded tuff, needs help, but it's probably easier to go to the store than travel for miles and haul back pigeon poop. 

The pigeon dwellings are small openings into caves which have nesting cavities inside. They are visible all over the valley, up high in the rocks, so high it makes you wonder how anyone got up there to make the little cave in the first place, or how they would clean out the droppings later.

Multiwinged Angel, photo taken
at the MNAC museum, but there
is one almost identical to it in
the cave church, with a missing face. 
Well over a thousand years ago, during the Byzantine era, churches were carved out of the rocks and served communities of cave dwellers. In the Rose Valley, a man has "adopted" a church, cleaned it up, provided stairs up to the entrance and cleaned the marvelous frescos inside. In addition, he has opened a little store that serves tea, water, snacks, jewelry, handmade items, and most importantly shade, for people hiking the valley. It's refreshing to come across his little enterprise tucked into the rocks.

His church is small, with a large cross carved into the ceiling, and frescos that are almost identical to ones I saw in the MNAC museum in Barcelona. The only difference between the museum and the little church: when Christianity was kicked out of Turkey, the faces on all the saints and angels were intentionally scratched off by the subsequent Muslims. For years the church was also used as a pigeon house, nesting boxes were carved into the walls.

Walking back to the car, we went a different path and came across a much larger church, with a wooden bridge across the deep stream bed in front. The entrance is a small cave opening into a low vestibule, but beyond that, a cavern opens up, with columns carved from the solid rock to hold up the ceiling. There was no sign of frescos, so it's possible it was never decorated that way. Some painted designs are still visible on the ceiling, but nothing on the walls. It too served as a pigeon house for many years.

MNAC display of frescos from early Byzantine church.

Saturday, October 20, 2012



An old Iranian term meaning the land of the fast racehorses. Located in Central Turkey, in the Anatolia region, it is now famous for its interesting geology and ancient cave churches. 

I thought it was a Greek name, but Eveline, who has lived here for 7 years and is a tour guide, said no. I came to house-sit for her, and will be taking care of her three dogs: Nura, Say-no, and Meelo. Nura is the largest, a golden shepherd mix, about ten years old. The other two are long bodied terriers with Disney-dog faces.  

Every day we go down from her house to the big valley for a daily long walk. The first day I was here, we went to a side valley with some cave home ruins. Ruin is not a very accurate term as the homes are still there, just missing their fronts. The rooms were carved from volcanic tuff. Generally the floors are flat. Inside, benches, raised bed platforms and windows were carved out. Nothing about a cave home is straight or smooth.  With a large open entrance, they needed to be protected from the weather, so usually another room was built on the front, from the rock that had been carved out, and a wooden door installed. Some cave homes have had a wall built right inside the arched cave entrance with a door, but in the oldest examples, all that is gone.

Eveline’s home is partially cave. Rooms downstairs make a guest apartment in what was once the stable. The house is built above. My bedroom is literally carved from solid tuff.  There is evidence of past fires, black soot covers some of the ceiling. The two large vent holes were plugged with big rocks when the house was built on top. I suspect this space was a home in the far past as well as a stable. When she bought the property, there was no apartment, she designed it and had it built. There is a nice new bathroom and a decent kitchen with a raised floor. The bathroom walls are straight, created from blocks of tuff. Mortar was made from ground tuff so the color is uniform. On the floor are deep red, green, and black Turkish carpets and it’s decorated with old water jugs, wall hangings, and antique pots and pans. I fell in love with my little cave home the minute I walked in.


Looking into the cave bedroom.
Ortahisar is a village near the larger town of Urgup. A bus runs every thirty minutes between the towns. In the last few years tourism has increased dramatically. The valley, full of these cave homes, many abandoned because they are no longer safe,  has been bought up by rich people from Istanbul and converted into hotels, and boutique B&Bs. So between falling ruins and normal small homes, there are elegant hotels.

The streets are donkey paths, most not wide enough for even the small European cars. It’s easy to get on the wrong path and end up in a place where you can see where you want to be, but not how to get there.

Eveline took me to Urgup on Wednesday, my first day here. I had left my old hiking boots behind in Rio Gordo after the dog-sitting gig. I had planned to, it lightened the load in my luggage considerably. But now, winter is coming and I need something other than sandals.  There are two outdoor-stores in Urgup and I spent the better part of the afternoon trying on all the boots in town that were my size, finally paying more than I would have paid in the States for a pair of North Face boots.

Urgup is a major tourist attraction; big tour buses were lined up in the center of town. I could see a long ridge rising up with cave-homes and people walking around on top enjoying what must be a spectacular view. Off in the distance is a volcano covered with snow and in between -  the landscape of eroded tuff valleys.

So far, communicating has been challenging but not impossible. After the trip to Urgup, I took the bus back to Ortahisar. It dropped me off at the edge of the center of town. Eveline said there were paths from town down into the valley, and indeed there were several, but once in the bottom, I had no idea where to go up to get to her house. I could see the landmark tower and knew her home to be directly across from it, but I had no idea what the house would look like from that angle. As it turned out, I wouldn’t have been able to see it at all, too many other houses blocked the view. So, very lost, I ended up on top of the ridge at a dead end, with an elderly woman pointing down a steep dirt path as the way I should go. Fortunately I turned back and found paved streets, eventually a little grocery, and was able to ask where the Hezen Hotel was. Unable to follow the complicated Turkish directions, a girl volunteered to escort me down a couple of streets. There was the sign for the hotel on the only street I actually recognized. I thanked her and got home before dark. Whew!!

Muslim Radical Hospitality

Another excellent reason to travel is that occasionally you meet local people and see the way people really live. For a worthwhile experience it’s even worth losing money. I had a pre-paid reservation in Ankara at a hotel for the night, but I never showed up. 

Monday, in Istanbul, I got on a large luxury road cruiser. Instead of 4 seats across, it only had 3. The seats were extra wide and further apart than normal. A steward, wearing a white shirt and tie, served drinks and snacks from a rolling cart. Each seat had a small TV screen that played music and movies. And there was WiFi that consistently dropped out inside the many long tunnels.

After a few hours, the bus stopped at a large bus station just off the four-lane highway. Without any Turkish to speak of, I had no idea if we were picking up people and moving on, or taking a substantial break. I needed to go to the bathroom after taking too much advantage of the steward’s tea cart!

A young lady overheard me asking about the “tuvalet” and speaking thickly accented English, she asked where I was from, told me we had thirty minutes, and took me to the restroom, which was outfitted with Asian floor toilets. I’d never used one before, but I’ve been camping in the woods many times, it wasn’t so different.
Aylin, her mother, and nephew Ahmetmet.

Aylin (pronounced like Ailene) learned English in a four-year course and was doing quite well. She also speaks Russian, so occasionally her English has Russian accents. It’s very charming.

Back on the bus, we traded my single seat with her seat-mate so we could chat. By the end of the bus trip, she’d convinced me to come to her house in Akyurt to meet her family and have dinner. Every few minutes she was texting or calling members of her family, planning the visit! At 23 she still has all the exuberance of a teenager. The invitation was also to spend the night, but I felt that was too much. She reluctantly arranged for her uncle to drive me back to Ankara at 11:00pm to the hotel.

Her father picked us up at the bus stop and drove the last mile or so into town. Aylin was so excited to bring home a foreign guest! Another of my media-induced illusions took a nose-dive. Muslims (at least in Turkey) don’t hate Americans. They have many of the same misconceptions of us from American movies, as we have of them based on our media.

Arriving at the front of the store, which also houses a barber shop in the same building, we were greeted by a bunch of teen aged boys. In the tall homes up and down the street, women were on their balconies looking down. I felt like an arriving dignitary.

The village is now on the outskirts of Ankara, with only a few farms to separate it from the city. Aylin grew up in the house where she still lives with her parents. As the youngest, she now has an entire floor to herself. Two sisters live nearby with their families and a third lives in Ankara. Her mother has run a store, in the front part of the house for years, and her father is retired from government service. The store was moved and is now on the main road through town. It’s a small village but the homes are two and three stories, one across the road has seven! Most people live in large extended families. We arrived at dusk so I was able to see a bit of the town. Just outside Aylin’s house is a natural spring that has been concreted over and redirected to a pool. It runs constantly like a small fountain, and overflows into a tiny stream bed. People wash their carpets on the slab in front, and many drink the water from it, rather than buy bottled water. Across the street is the Mosque, complete with the usual loudspeakers. For a few minutes, at sunset, it was impossible to have a conversation.

Aylin showing off the array of goods
in her mother's grocery store.
Her mother’s store is stocked with everything you might need; from milk, eggs, and flour, to toilet bowl cleaner and laundry soap. There’s a TV mounted above a refrigerated case, and a kitchen in the back where her mother cooks the family’s meals. A couch, right in amongst the shelves and displays, makes the store like a second home. Most of the boys that came in and out are her parent’s grandchildren or related to the family in some way. I met so many I couldn’t possibly remember them all. But one of Aylin’s nephews named Ahmetmet is learning English in school, and though very shy, he came and sat next to me, had some bread at the meal with us, and generally hung around all the time I was there.

We had a wonderful meal! Everyone sat on the couch and on tiny stools around a coffee table and ate from a large platter, dipping food with bread or spoons into the communal dishes. Her mother had made an all-vegetable meal, the way they eat in the summer when everything is fresh. (And organic!) Starting with a garlicky squash soup topped with dried crushed grape leaves, we moved on to tiny okras in tomato sauce, a fresh chopped salad with carrots and cucumber, and the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten. Eggplant is used a lot in Turkish cooking. Though never a big fan, I vowed to eat it as often as possible to give it a second chance. After this meal, I’m clearly going to have to learn to cook it! Everything we ate, her father had grown in his garden or orchard.

Her mother asked me personally to stay overnight, so I knew this was not just letting Aylin have her day in the spotlight. Every person who interacted with me, either through smiles and showing me things, or through Aylin’s interpretation skills, was doing it from genuine curiosity and generosity.

I would be spending the night somewhere, why not with this delightful family?

After the meal, in the dark, we went to her sister’s apartment, on the second floor of a building across the street. It was quite large, with stone floors, big carpets, comfortable furniture, and elegant drapes. The kitchen was huge, and had a big family table with chairs. In the evening a wood-burning stove in the living room was lit and warmed up the room considerably.

I showed them photos of the Alhambra which none had seen. I think very few of the extended family has traveled outside of Turkey. But they do know about Texas. The TV show Dallas was a big hit for years, and may still be playing in re-runs.

Some members of the family posing for pictures.
Family is the most important thing in the world.  Everyone seemed to feel sorry for me that I have only one child, am divorced, and am traveling all alone. So I showed them photos of my family at Christmas time, just so they would have a sense of how I, too, am connected. Aylin told me they also celebrate Christmas. Jesus was a prophet, like Mohammad, and they use Christmas as an opportunity to give each other presents!

I must admit, I was very surprised by that revelation!

Neighbors showed up and other relatives came over. The large living room was full of people. Her sister gave me a lovely red scarf with edge embroidery that she had done herself. Since they all wear headscarves, I put this one on for the photos. We had a great time. Whenever I took a picture I told the group to say “Whiskey”. From then on, all night, if someone wanted to get a laugh, it was Wheeeeskeeee!!

We stayed at the sister’s home for several hours. She served tea and Halva, a dessert made from flour, butter, and sugar that tasted like fluffy cream of wheat. During all this activity, the men were off somewhere else. Boys under 12 hung out with us. Even at tea, I think the men were served somewhere, while we dominated the kitchen. Towards the very end, when the crowd thinned, Aylin’s brother-in-law came in and sat down in the kitchen to ask a few questions. He really wanted to know if my son liked me, or was he angry with me for getting divorced, and did he live with me? He knew from American movies that boys don’t live with their families after age 18, and that they are all very angry. I told him that American movies are not a good reflection of real life! He was genuinely curious about how the American family works. I explained that in the US it’s normal for young people to leave home at 18 and live separately from their parents. He asked if my heart was broken when my son left me.  

On the way down the hill to Aylin’s house for the night, I noticed there were still women on balconies watching what was going on. I feel certain my stay in this village will be the fodder of gossip for some time to come.


The next morning, Aylin slept while I wrote. About 9:00 her mother called on the phone to say come for breakfast; it woke her up. So we rushed around packing my bag and getting ready to leave the house.

Breakfast is served! With Aylin's eldest sister,
just waiting for everyone else
to come and sit. 
Breakfast was in the store, just like dinner, and served the same way. That small coffee table has a removable top they loaded with plates of food in the kitchen area and carried over to the stand in front of the couch. The wood stove roared nearby. 

What an interesting breakfast. A large plate of ripe tomatoes, a basket of washed parsley and mild green chilies, potatoes fried in olive oil, chopped boiled eggs, black wrinkled olives, sliced cheese, and a stack of freshly baked home-made bread.  Plus tea in little tulip shaped glasses that I’ve only seen used in Turkey, a bowl of sugar and a small plate of salt. As before we stabbed at the food with our forks and ate leaned over the table. Everything was simple, fresh and delicious. Aylin’s sister wanted to know what Americans eat for breakfast, do they really eat Kellogg's?

The conversation was even more interesting than the breakfast. Her father admired my teeth and wanted to know if they were my own. His set of beautiful white chompers, on the other hand, were 22 implants, that cost (Aylin’s translation) 39 billion lira.  I’m sure it was 39 thousand, but that is still an awful lot of money.  I assured him that all but one of my teeth were still my own. He approved, and said his wife had all of hers too.

Aylin's father, at the spring, soaking stale bread for the ducks.

The night before, the family had delighted in a game in which I guessed their ages. I guessed fairly well, but when Aylin asked me to guess her father’s age, I thought I was underestimating 5 years by saying 60 but was off by 6. He is only 54, sporting an deeply grooved tanned face like you would see in a National Geographic article on Turkey. He's spent much of his life in the sun, and that makes a world of difference. 

First graders.
After breakfast, we went for a long walk to see the town. Just down the hill from the store is the school where Aylin and her sisters went for the first 8 years. The administrator greeted us at the gate, and asked us to come in; I could take pictures. The kids were all wearing uniforms and boys especially wanted me to take photos of them with their arms around each other’s shoulders. I see so much affection in the family and the town, people always touching, kissing on the cheek, smiling at one another. Men in Turkey, walk with one’s arm on the other’s shoulder, or even arm in arm. Kisses on the cheek when greeting is normal. It’s heartwarming to see that America’s insane homo-phobia hasn’t extended around the world.

Aylin's uncle, her father's older brother, was chopping wood with an ax at his house across from the school. His daughter pointed out a dead animal in the tree. Some men would be coming soon to knock it down. I asked why they bothered, and Aylin said the men wanted to have the skin. No one knew what kind of animal was up there, all we could see was a long fuzzy tail blowing in the breeze.

We walked on down the road to see more houses and her sister’s “summer” house, a tiny cottage by a stream, where the family gathers in summertime to have tea and visit in the evenings. On the way back, a crowd of people had gathered to watch a man in the bucket truck knock the animal out of the tree with a shovel. It was a mink or marten. Not long dead and with thick luxurious fur. There was blood around the mouth and hind legs but otherwise it looked undamaged. The local tanner showed up with big thick gloves and rubber boots to take it away.

Women's class in the Mosque.
On the way back to the store, we stopped at the Mosque where women were having a class on reading the Koran. I asked if they were learning to read, but Aylin said no, they already know how to read, the class is on reading the Koran well.  With our different cultures in the way, I’m not sure if that meant interpreting the Koran, or reading it aloud with feeling, or singing it out loud. The class was very welcoming, and wanted me to photograph them. Most of the women in the town are conservative and wear headscarves. Some of the younger ones like Aylin chose not to. She may change her mind after she’s married and settles down, it will of course depend on where she lives and how much social pressure there is to conform.  

Cheryl, the woman I rented from in Istanbul told me that Turkey is considered very liberal, Istanbul especially. The rest of the Muslim world calls religion in Turkey “Muslim-Light”.

Back at the store, Aylin’s mother had prepared Turkish coffee for us. Pinar had told me that Turks don’t drink much coffee, though they are famous for it. It’s very strong, and meant to be savored with a small piece of chocolate or tiny pastry. Coffee is more of an event. So, up to this moment, I hadn’t tried it.

Making traditional Turkish coffee.

Her mother dipped spoonfuls of dark brown foam from the top of a small pot to fill six tiny cups. Then she poured the rest of the coffee on top of the foam. We were served outside at a picnic table in front of the store, each cup accompanied by a slice of Mars bar. I was expecting a bitter brew, the coffee was so dense and black, but instead it was sweet, smooth and absolutely delicious.

Aylin’s sister has a reputation of being able to tell your fortune from the dumped coffee grounds. My cup, after the grounds had time to drain out, was found to say that I have two eyes upon me (ie people are looking at me! No kidding?!!) And since my cup drained very smoothly and evenly, leaving little mountain patterns around the edge, it means that I will meet many people in the future.

Coffee and Mars Bars, in front of the store,
with Aylin's two sisters and mother.

The bus came right on time, to take me back to Ankara. We hugged, kissed, and said good-by. As the bus drove off, I glanced back to see women still watching from balconies.

An experience like this was well worth forfeiting the price of a hotel room. The whole village might feel sorry for me, being single and all alone, but if I hadn’t been alone, would I have met Aylin at all?

My young Turkish friend, Aylin.