“Unusual travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God.” – Kurt Vonnegut
A Brief Travel Account of a Journey from Istanbul to Eşenler of Emily Mendenhall and Olga Tkachenko
On the train, with two minutes to spare, catching our breath, we are ready to go. The overnight train pulls into Konya early Friday morning, and after orienting ourselves around the Mevlana museum, we make it to the Silk Road rug shop. Muammer, who works at the shop and arranged our village homestay, welcomes us to Konya, treating us to a breakfast of tea and toast, as he is among the few who do not observe the fast for Ramadan. A short walk through town brings us to a quaint guesthouse, built by his brother Mehmet, where we stay for our time in Konya. The house is covered with intricate woodwork, and many carpets that have probably come from their shop.
After a little bit of exploring, we realize that one of the wooden closets in our room had a second set of doors, glass sliding doors, on the inside. Once we open the doors, it quickly becomes obvious where the term “water closet” gets its origin. It is our bathroom and shower. In our closet. Apparently, back in the Ottoman times, people used showers only once a week, so the rest of the time, they would use the space for storage of their bedding. And so for the three days we are in Konya, we sporadically play a game of hide and seek, going in and out of our closet.
Once we settle in, we decide to walk around a bit and see the center of town and maybe do some light shopping. Getting hungry for lunch, we stop at a supermarket, and as it is Ramadan we buy only a loaf of bread and some water so that we might be able to eat without attracting too much attention. Leaving the store, it seems that every public space is filled with men and veiled women, holding prayer beads and reciting Qur’anic verses. It is a Friday afternoon, and we are surrounded on all sides by several mosques, all of which have the call to prayer coming from the loudspeakers. We wander around looking for a secluded spot so as not to offend anyone, and we must have looked quite desperate, as out of nowhere, a veiled girl about our age approaches us. She begins to gesture, asking if we want to eat and drink, at which point she points away from the mosques, saying that a public park would be a better option. Grateful for the advice, we head to a nearby park but are still hesitant to sit down and eat as there are still many people there as well. Noticing our discomfort, a man comes up to us and motions towards Alaaddin Hill Park, indicating that it would be a more appropriate location for our modest picnic. I am comforted by how compassionate these two individuals ar,e to help us out even though they themselves could not eat. And so with many thanks, we set off for Alaaddin Hill.
On our way to the park, we happen to pass by an open pharmacy, and as Emily has concerns over the sunburn on her face, we decide to stop in and see if they have anything similar to Neosporin, that might help the burns heal faster. Why we assumed that the pharmacists who do not speak English would know what Neosporin was, I don’t know. For the next twenty minutes, we have all of the six employed individuals in the store attempting to select for Emily a medication which they think she might need, going to such lengths as to put an English speaking person on the phone with her for the duration of the ordeal. After a while, our mix of Turkish and English produces the desired results and we leave the store with medication in hand, waving good bye to the entire staff of the pharmacy.
Finally at the hill, we settle at a quiet spot just behind the café on top of the hill, and as it turns out, also just in front of the entrance to the Alaaddin Mosque. Because as we break into our bread and water, the front doors open up and the dozens of men who had attended the afternoon prayer service filed out of the mosque and past the two of us eating on the grass. Needless to say, our sneaky meal was not so sneaky, as we quietly munched to disapproving glances.
After our quick lunch, we decide to visit a small village not too far from Konya, recommended by Muammer, called Sille, and so we hop on the #64 bus and make the twenty minute trip up to the town. It is if the village has ceased to exist. When we get there, all of the houses are quiet, the shops are closed, the chairs in the restaurants turned over, and not a soul to be found on the streets. We never thought Ramadan would stop life so completely. Confused, we sit down on a bench in the shade in an attempt to decide what to do next. Immediately, we are swarmed on all sides by six boys, between 8 and 12 years old, who are attempting to speak English to us, asking where are we from, etc. Slightly amused, we chatt for a while, and one of the boys offers that Emily take a ride on his bicycle. Being friendly, she accepts, but after a few laps around the area, the pedal on the bike falls right off. We soon realize it is a hoax, because immediately, that same boy runs up to her and, pointing to the bike, yells, ―Money, money, money!‖ Not falling for his trick, we refuse, laughing at the absurdity of the situation. It gets progressively more interesting, as he attempts to convince us in broken English that he is calling the police and that we will go to jail. Deciding to take our chances with any possible police intervention, we say good bye and head back to the bus stop. But the kids are relentless – they follow us for 10 minutes as we walk around contemplating what to do next. Finally, still haven’t received money, they walk off in a different direction, while we, hoping to avoid them for the rest of our time there, head back to the bus stop.
As we are sitting there, waiting for the bus, high up on a hill in front of us, we notice some crumbling remains of a domed building and realize that it must be the ancient church of which Muammer spoke when he recommended we visit this town. As we still have time before the next bus, we quickly scramble up the hill to what we later discovered was Küçük Kilese, not the St. Helen’s Church (apparently just down the road) as we had thought, but rather a small ruined chapel. Nonetheless, it is still a great find, as from beside the ruins, we can see the entirety of the little town, as well as the cemetery down the slope of the hill nearby. After taking some great pictures of the landscape, we scramble through the weeds and thorns back down to the bus stop and, luckily with no further hassle, return back to Konya.
Back at the guesthouse, we find Mehmet and a small construction crew taking a break from working on his new hotel right next to his house. Inviting us to sit down on the cinderblocks, he brews tea for everyone and we spend the next half hour in a political discussion (focusing on the disappointment of the Bush presidency). Still tired from our trip, we decide to take a nap before attempting any further adventures, and it is not until 9pm that we finally get back to our senses. At this point, we are desperate for food, but as we make our way out of the house, Mehmet sees us and invites us upstairs to his house, where he and his wife have already had iftar but have lots of leftovers of all of the food she has made during the day. A dinner of fresh salad, stuffed green peppers, and homemade lentil soup – we could not have hoped to find anything better! Tea and fresh fruit are quick to follow as we join Mehmet and his wife on the pillows on their floor, watching television and discussing the recent return of an exiled Kurdish leader back to Turkey and his take on the Kurdish situation in general. He states that Kurdish people claim to want independence but are unwilling to leave Istanbul or Turkey. “It is like people in Arizona saying we want to be independent, but still live in New York City”. And with these bits of wisdom, off to bed we go in preparation for our trip to Eşenler the next day.
Our bags loaded with tea and coffee for the family, balloons and bubble gum for the kids, we are off to Eşenler on the noon shuttle. Taking stock of the car, we decide it would be for the best to put our bags on our laps rather than have them tied to the roof, and so we crowd inside, the only two females in a bus full of older men and adolescent boys. For the next three hours, we are obviously the object of everyone’s attention, complete with hidden giggling, stealthy glances, and plenty of cuddling on Emily’s side. We are a novelty for these folks, and boy do we know it. Confused, with no idea of where we are going exactly, we sit back and wait to see what happens, hoping that once we get there, someone will know that it is time for us to get off.
Lucky for us, someone did. As the shuttle finally weaves its way to the top of a smaller mountain, the village comes into sight, and at the second stop an older man with two children leans into the car and waves for us to get off. His name is Ekrem Dogdu and he becomes our grandfather for the next two days. With him greet us his two grandchildren – Seyit, 12, and Aişe, 5, – who lead the way up a rocky slope towards their house. We barely step inside when hugs and kisses flow from every direction, as the mother, grandmother, and a couple of neighbors come to greet us and welcome us to the village. Immediately, everyone sits down and the photo albums come out. We flip through the past decade of the family history as they bring fresh cherries and plums for us and the children. None of the adults partake, as they are fasting, but we will soon discover that despite Ramadan, they will, over the course of two days, offer us food at a rate and quantity that we cannot manage.
As the pictures come to an end, the balloons come out. The kids are excited to see them, and we are glad for a way to connect with them that would not require Turkish. The next hour is spent with balloon soccer, balloon volleyball, and other games invented on the spot to keep the kids laughing. As the games wind down, the mother, Guleser, brings in a bag of potatoes for peeling in preparation for dinner, to be done in front of the television. Naturally, we offered to help. But to be honest, I’m not sure about how helpful we actually were. Our potato peeling skills pale greatly in comparison to hers, which meant that not only the two of us took twice as long as she would have managed by herself, but that we also wasted more potato from our rough, chopping motions, that she could have salvaged with her adept hands. Nonetheless, the potatoes are peeled, dinner is being started, and so our grandfather motions for us to come, follow him
out of the house and back down the street. We are going to his garage, his truck, which will carry us, with Sayit in the back and Aişe in our laps in the front, to a natural spring not 10 minutes away to fill up their water supply. We will learn that this is a regular job – once the sun starts making its descent, we make our way to the cold, fresh water, to fill up plastic canisters, wrapped in red woven fabric to insulate the cold as they did back in the old days, and bring them back for dinner.
When we return, the grandmother, Emine, enters the house and with her brings a stack of bread – thin as crepes, crisp, at least two feet in diameter. It was baked in a room off to the side of the house, and now she lays it out on the floor, and sprays each piece with water, one by one, restacking the pile so that the layers absorb the water, flatten out, and become more malleable to prevent it from shattering when she later folds it. As we figure out the process, our hands jump in, each of us doing a fold in one direction before putting these pockets of bread into a plastic bag for later consumption. Meanwhile, Aişe off to the side, sits munching on the pieces that inevitably break off from lack of moisture, covering the blanket underneath, her shirt, her pants, and my pants, with crumbs.
When we finish, it is not quite time to eat, and so we follow the kids back out of the house and, with a neighborhood friend of Seyit, we walk towards the mountains. Of course with two young boys, this slow walk soon becomes a race, and at the count of three, the two of them and myself take off sprinting up the slope as Emily and Aişe follow, hand in hand. They try to race be running forwards, running backwards, going up and down the mountain, but to no avail. I’m sure that in a few years time, I would not stand a chance against them, but for the moment I enjoyed having an advantage of longer legs and greater speed, a rarity for someone my size. If they had kept pressing me to race, they would have won without question. Ten minutes into this game I am out of breath, wondering to myself what had compelled me to run up this mountain. The boys, on the other hand, were going strong, and had they known this they surely would have come out successful. So as I slowly make my way back down, back towards the village, victorious but shamed by a lack of endurance, I stop and capture a few pictures as the sun leaves its last rays on the landscape. Everything turns gold, and as the light begins to fade, a mother’s voice calls from a distance – it is time for dinner.
The Ramadan meal is nothing fancy – pita, fresh vegetables, fried potatoes, yogurt, tea, and honey – but it is the atmosphere that makes it unforgettable. All of us, the grandparents and parents, children and a few neighbors, gather around a large platter in the middle of the carpet on a blanket that serves as a table and a napkin. No plates. Each of us has a small stack of pita on which to pile, with which to roll, our food, taken from the communal bowls in the center. And as we hungrily dig in, I notice that the adults, all of whom had not eaten for the entire day, eat much slower and much less than do we and the children. As everyone gets their fill, chatter increases, laughter fills the room, sneaking in between the Turkish and the English, each battling for some understanding. Tea is refilled, the television is turned on, and everyone leans back against the pillows which line the walls.
After dinner is cleaned up and the platter taken away, we discover that Seyit is a dancer. When music comes on the television, he begins a traditional Turkish dance, to which he then adds two wooden spoons in each hand, clacking out his own beat with the added percussion of the tiny symbols on the ends of the spoons. As we sit there and clap, we notice the hands of another grandmother – bright orange, splotched with black and dark brown. Curious, we point, and she goes on to explain that it is traditional Turkish henna, and then points to our hands, nodding her head. We will be getting henna.
And so as the neighbors leave and everyone else remains watching television, Guleser brings a bowl of powder and water into our room, indicating that we should get ready for bed before applying the henna. We have no idea how important that advice was until fifteen minutes later. I go first, with Emily capturing it all on tape. Both my hands, covered. A layer of green paste on my palms, between my fingers. I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep it from getting on the bed as I slept. Plastic bags. That’s right. Once coated with henna, each hand is wrapped inside a plastic bag, which is then tied tightly around the wrist. I laugh, Emily is next. We feel like small children, gloved to keep from scratching chickenpox. Guleser leaves, and it is time for bed. Our laughter only intensifies once we realize that we are incapable of doing anything – we cannot move our pillows, unfold our blankets, I can’t take off my glasses. After a bit of struggle, we finally lay down. Crunch, swish. There is a fly inside the room. Rustle, rustle. One of us turns to her other side. Laughing, we finally fall asleep on our thin mattresses on the floor, hands above the head, resigned.
5am. There are people banging on the front door to the house, drums are shaking the windows. Barely coming out of sleep, we realize that this is the infamous mesaharati from the second part of Al Kitaab, our second year of Arabic study. He is going up and down the streets, waking the villagers before dawn, before the beginning of the daily fast, so they can have a final meal for that night. Delighted to actually experience this for ourselves, we drift back to sleep as he continues on, sounding his drum for the other houses.
Awake at 8:00 AM, no one is up. Back to sleep, to awake at 11:00 AM. This time we stretch and begin unwrapping our plastic covered hands to see the stains from the henna on our palms, rustling in the other rooms, as we scrub the green smudge from our skin. ―”Chok Guzel!” everyone says, as they peer at our hands for the first time. This will become a minor distraction over the next few days, as out of unfamiliarity, each time we catch a glimpse of our hands out of the corners of our eyes, we panic, thinking that they are dirty rather than decorated.
Breakfast again like the first day, and everyone is rusty because they have been up for most of the night. Again, the adults sit around us and watch as we and our two younger siblings munch on bread, honey, cheese and fresh fruit. Emily and I help with the dishes and cleaning up from the day before, and return to the main living room to a little more dancing to the television and entertainment from our little scoundrel, Ayşe. She was always trying to be the center of attention, even when she herself held the camera (taken from myself or Emily, usually to capture herself in my scarf and sunglasses).
Today would be the day of the waterfall. So not an hour or so later, the whole family is packed up in the old white van, heading to the “şelale”. The road is rocky and thin, barely wide enough for one car, let alone two, and we pray that no other travelers come barreling up the other side, as any compromise would be impossible. The hairpin curves cause us often to close our eyes and hold our breath, but Grandpa is a pro, and Ayşe smacks her hands on the dash and sings the whole way down . Plus the view from the top of that mountain over the valley is enough to keep our eyes open; it is simply breathtaking, as is the waterfall at the bottom. After seeing the falls, we make our way further downstream, where there is a small lagoon, which the men and kids take full advantage of. For us, in our jeans and multiple layers, swimming is out of the question. We have to make do with rolling up our pants and wading in the water for a little while. But we still get the enjoyment of seeing Aişe playfully dunked into the water by her father, despite her yelling and numerous attempts at escape.
The brother of our Grandpa lives in this same valley, so as we are leaving, we stop to see him and his wife – another Emine. They are just as kind and welcoming as our family. They offer us fresh fruit—grapes and peaches—warm from the sun—from their orchards surrounding their house. They grow everything—pistachios, pomegranates, apples, peaches, grapes, walnuts, strawberries, and more—some fruits we had never even heard of. Most interestingly, they are beekeepers. We snap many photos of them as they smoke the bees from their combs to collect the honey for sale. We even get to sample some of the honey during lunch, when large chunks of honeycomb are laid out for us and the kids. Throughout the day, our “Uncle” takes us through an entire horticulture book, him having no English and us no Turkish. Each time we face a picture and we cannot understand through his gesticulation the fruit he is depicting, he sends us off into the orchards with Seyit to find it. So now although our Turkish vocabulary may still be lagging, Emily and I feel right at home in the produce section in any shop or market.
As the afternoon wears on, the adults are tired and the children restless, so off we go inside, to nap on the rugs and pillows covering their floors. And after an hour or two, it is up the winding dirt road, back home to Eşenler. Back at the house, Emine is busy preparing for dinner when she greets us with a grin. It is just beginning to cool down as the sun hangs low in the sky. Time to go to the spring for water. This time, Emine comes with us and manages her garden plots while we fill the jugs at the spring. The irrigation system they use is fascinating. It is managed by a series of channels meticulously dug around the edges of the crops, and blocked at each corner with large rocks, sludge and old pieces of fabric. The spring we draw water from flows into a cistern, from which they control further flow with a stick. Opened, gravity empties the cistern into their channels, which they can redirect to which crops or plots of land need the water. Once plugged, it fills for the next use. Muammer later said that this is an ancient method of irrigation and still effective to this day. That must be the secret behind the tremendous success of their fields, as all of the plants are picture perfect, suffering none of the diseases that so commonly plague our plants in the West.
We arrive back at the home in time to help prepare for dinner. Sheet on the living room floor and a trey full of goodies. Family gathers around, almost immediately at the call to prayer, Emine ripps apart her ekmek and scoops some pasta from the center bowl; then we all dig in. Following dinner, the men head to the mosque, Emine goes off to other duties, and we remain in the family room with Mom, Seyit, and Ayşe. Once again, music plays on the television and the kids are ready to dance. This time, we try some cross-cultural experimentation. As Seyit shows us the steps to the Turkish dance, I show him some bellydance moves, which seemed to be something new for them. Even the mom got to her feet to try it out for herself. Seeing their excitement, we decide to make things a bit more interesting and introduce them to yoga, including the Warrior and Eagle poses. Then we move on to some tumbling, with handstands, rolls, and cartwheels in the hallway. Catching our breath, we settle back down in the living room, but once again Seyit picks up his wooden spoons and begins a beat which we cannot help but join. Beating our thighs, snapping our fingers, tapping the walls, beating a drum, jingling bells – anything we could get our hands on became music.
The men return from their prayers to share our last meal of fresh cherries, peaches and plums before we are off to bed around 11pm, because, as it turns out, our bus back to Konya is not the noon shuttle, as we had imagined, but comes rather at the convenient hour of 5am. Luckily for us, we don’t even need to set an alarm clock – we can count on the mesaharati to come around once again, right outside our window, banging his drum for the pre-dawn meal.
After what feels like minutes of sleep, up and away we go, once again in the company of amused adolescents, but this time I am too tired to care. I stay up long enough to see the sun rise in between the mountains and make its way over the peak before I am asleep on the seat of the bus, counting on Emily to keep watch for the both of us.
Back at the train station, our sense of orientation is entirely gone. At 7am, there are few people around the bus depot, and once again, we are the center of attention for the six or seven men also gathered around the same area. Once again, Muammer comes to the rescue – within 10 minutes of our phone call for help, he is there with his truck to take us back to the guesthouse. Grateful and exhausted, we sleep.
After lunch, when we finally manage to get ourselves together, we realize our hunger and once again make a trip down to the supermarket. But by now we are comfortable, we know our way around (at least around the couple of main streets) and the trip is uneventful. For the next two days, our diet will consist of instant soup, bread, and chocolate cream. Back home, over a small propane tank with a burner, we make our soup, and within ten minutes, we have a complete dinner for two for less than 1TL. Proud and satisfied, we dive into our books, hoping to finish the class reading and get a start on our presentations.
The next day was spent in much the same way. On a shady bench near a mosque, we plan our presentation. As we get up, a pair of young girls recognize us! These are the same children that we had met on our first trip to Konya with the class, whose Qur’an lesson Emily had interrupted in exchange for a lesson in Eeny Meeny Miney Moe. Somehow, we had made it to the same madrasa. Out of nostalgia, we return to Alaaddin Hill for some more of the delicious dondurma we had gotten on our original Konya trip. After a final stroll through the streets, we are ready to return to Istanbul. After some heartfelt goodbyes, we return to the train station, to Istanbul.