September 2 - October 30, 2005
Good to be Back
Returning in Style
Only the coming of the summer's heat had made it easy to leave Turkey in 2002 as we had treasured our time in the country. I pouted as we left, daring Map Man to find a convincing encore, which he amazingly did by introducing us to the Italian Dolomites a couple of months later.
Our anticipated return to Turkey in 2003 was abandoned because of the impending US invasion of Iraq which made Americans wildly unpopular in the neighborhood. And the fear of getting caught in the increasing terrorism in 2005 just about scuttled this year's plans. Perhaps foolishly, we decided to go any way, not knowing if the politics in the region would improve or worsen in the coming years. France's continuing strong protests against Turkey joining the EU could make foreigners less welcome in Turkey in the future.
In 2002 we arrived in Turkey essentially reclining on a bench seat in a small boat. Reclining was the best way to keep from getting sick in the rough waters tossing our ferry about--the ferry that had room for a dozen people and 2 vehicles. We made bets as to whether the little camper truck would go overboard before we reached land. This year we arrived sitting upright, confident about retaining our breakfast. Again there were only 2 vehicles on board but this ferry had seating for several hundred passengers and traveled across a calmer sea.
Like many places, Turkey is at an awkward juncture of new and old and the country struggles to maintain its dignity amidst the hoards of tourists oblivious to its conservative values. But there is an earthy pragmatism that still pervades the street culture that I enjoy. As I struggled to lift my loaded bike over a low gate threshold at the tiny port, 3 of the older men socializing there quickly helped to lift and maneuver my bike through the narrow opening. Characteristically, the Turks were quick to help but in a gentle way. In other countries when I struggle with my bike, people just stare.
As much as I love discovering the culture and land of Turkey, I was only there a few minutes before I was again cringing at the sight of women in head scarves and even more so at the ones in full length overcoats in the summer heat. The men waltz around in western dress while some, though certainly not all, women wear the yoke of the some man's interpretations of the Koran. In addition to the garb, another prohibition observed by some is in not having an unrelated male sitting next to a woman, as on a bus.
We rode for over an hour on a 30-person minibus our first day in Turkey and quickly became caught up in the seating rituals demanded by the Islamic social constraints. Bill and I sat together initially, then split up to make the seat next to me available for a just-boarding woman. After another stop, all of the seats were taken except the one next to me. The 2 men standing in the aisle pretended the vacant seat wasn't there. When the bus paused, an elderly woman who had volunteered to sit next to a man she didn't know moved next to me so one of the men standing could sit in her spot. Then 2 more women got on the bus at the next stop, one being elderly, which provoked more shuffling. The 10 year girl sitting next to her mother in front of me moved to her mother's lap, freeing up a seat for the older woman. This shuffling went on continuously for the length of the bus ride without words and with a clear understanding of who sits next to whom and the pecking order of who should be accommodated. By my values the whole process of keeping the genders separated was sheer nuttiness and yet I travel to learn of the differences in the world, not to re-experience the familiar, so we did our part to honor the dance.
Turkish Women and Me
Turkey has the most polarized social scene we experience. In the more progressive parts where we largely visit, young to middle age women dress fashionably and would fit in on any European street. (Spaghetti straps on summer tops were definitely in, though the down-to-the-pubic-hair hip-hugger pants with the belly hanging out were not.) Older women more often would have all of their hair covered by a scarf and be conservatively dressed in baggy dark clothing. We saw few women driving vehicles (horse or motorized) outside of the biggest cities and we often spotted female passengers sitting in the back seat.
The culture and conventions regarding women were all over the map. The older men and heavily garbed women were especially prone to looking at me expressionless, but after that, all bets were off. The women in the cotton print baggy pants and shirts that I presumed were farmers would sometimes flash a smile or wave. The 30-something men that knew enough English were quick to stop and chat. And some of the older men didn't hesitate to share a grin.
More than anywhere else, the double standards in Turkey kept me guessing. I knew I couldn't tell by looking at a Turkish man as to how I would be received--age, dress and circumstance weren't predictors I could trust. The older men at the port quickly surrounded me and helped negotiate my bike but the men on the bus avoided the seat next to me like I had the plague. Some Turkish men eagerly chatted with me when I was left guarding the bikes, others would be chatting with Bill and headed for the hills when I appeared on the scene. I didn't see the man taking money to use a public toilet and he didn't approach me when I didn't pay but demanded payment from Bill for both of us when Bill used the toilet.
But it was clear that I was given more slack that Turkish women. Tourists, male or female, aren't expected to follow all the rules. I thought of that often as we rolled through villages on our bikes as riding a bike is one of the forbidden activities for women in some interpretations of the Koran. Only in the largest cities did we see a couple of women on bicycles. But I never once felt criticized or ostracized because I was on a bike. I, and we, were certainly stared at, but it didn't take being on a bike to trigger that response.
We had arrived at the tiny Turkish port of Ayvalik from Lesvos, Greece as a part of Plan B. Plan A had been to bike from Thessaloniki, Greece to Istanbul and then fly on to Australia. But a bike unfriendly stretch of freeway right at the border between the 2 countries demanded Plan B, which was to take a ferry to Lesvos, Greece and hop from there onto Turkey's coast a couple hundred miles southwest of Istanbul. It was a stretch of Turkey rather short on sightseeing venues but we were committed to maximizing the few options. That meant visiting the ancient site of Pergamum, the excavated site of Homer's Troy, and Gallipoli, which was made infamous in a bloody battle early in WWI. I'm no fan of war stories but they do shape history and so I was all for seeing the battle site that is a modern pilgrimage place for the Australian and New Zealanders that we planned to soon be visiting.
Not surprisingly, we enjoyed seeing the extensive ancient ruins at both Pergamum and Troy. We had seen finds from both of these sites in other countries
so it was a bit of closure to visit the sites themselves.
It was Gallipoli that delivered more than I expected as we learned how
it became a part of the 'creation myth' (every country has at least 1) of the Republic of Turkey. It was in
1915 that Ataturk defied his commanders, guessed right as to the strategy of the
Allies, and saved the day for the Ottoman Empire. He made such a name for himself that
the country rallied around him as they ditched the Sultan and formed the Republic
in 1923 (a republic that eventually awarded him the name Ataturk or "Father
Turk.") And it was at Gallipoli that the Turks first fought for their country on
their home land--a battle that resulted in almost every Turkish family loosing a
member to the cause. We were also intrigued at the throngs of "down under" folks
that are increasingly visiting the site and was especially evident in the hotel
names in the nearby city of Canakkale.
But between the 3 sites, it was a different story. As we held our own in intermittent waves of truck traffic on the extensive lengths of road construction, we had to wonder what we were doing there. We love Turkey, yet mixing it up with so much difficult traffic wasn't the Turkey we had known before. Bill knew that stretch from Pergamum north to Istanbul would be duller and the so-so scenery of rolling hills and spare vegetation crispy-dry from the heat didn't make up for the jostling we felt in traffic.
But I forgot about the mediocre riding conditions when we turned off the road into the small city of Biga hoping to find the promised hotels for the night. Biga was throbbing with what fascinates me about Turkey, which is the exposed and "out there" aspect of its culture. Certainly there is the behind closed doors and underneath the head scarves part too, but more of Turkey is plain to see than elsewhere we've been.
We were hot and tired but we dumped our gear in our room,
swapped our stiff biking sandals for softer Teva's, and darted out for dinner groceries. The vitality of the
street scene totally engulfed me and the road weariness and hunger disappeared. The familiar
metal-on-metal sounds pulled us across one street to see the source. Peering into the
closet-sized shop that was squeezed between a household cleaning products store
and a vegetable stand, was a 30-something man shaping a red hot axe head on an
anvil by an open fire. We'd seen this demonstrated in
museum exhibits but here he was, in the heart of town, hand crafting a small
axe head. It was fascinating to watch but we had to wonder about the economics of it:
earlier this year at a French forge museum we had learned that making a
shovel blade this way now cost about $150.
Tiny shops were the rule and little businesses filled with what we consider to be obsolete technology were crammed in between stores selling mobile phones. The shops spilled out on to the sidewalks, making watching your feet an almost full time occupation. There were not rules as to how deep the holes in the sidewalk or street can be; no limits to the things per square foot to trip on; and no one batted an eye when pedestrians were forced out into the street around the parked cars because of the clutter on the sidewalks. For some, the shop space itself was just a storage room and the display and transaction area was on the sidewalk. Shopkeepers encroached on the sidewalk from the store front side and small time operators closed in from the curb. Old baby buggies stripped down to the metal frame and wheels made convenient carts and display bases for small time peddlers. Others had small cases balanced on scissor-type folding legs, like TV trays, for the dozen mobile phones they were selling. One man's cart was set up for refilling cigarette lighters and on that day he was also selling 3 bags of lemons.
Horse carts were an everyday sight and when we left a town in the mornings we would occasionally follow one out for 4 or 5 miles. One horse and a flatbed cart were the standard. They seem to be used by both farmers coming to town and for delivery service within town. We most often saw them carrying farm goods or finished wood products like furniture. It was the occasional stops into towns like Biga that flashed us views of the Turkey that we had come to see.
For months a scrap of cardboard on the back of my bike declared our intentions: "Barcelona to Istanbul" and in mid-September we finally made it, despite the increasing terrorist activity and the discouraging traffic. Istanbul was at the top of my list of places to see before we someday surrender to a more sedentary lifestyle and we luxuriated in the experience, extending our stay to10 nights.
Our fun in the exotic city was intensified by successfully rendezvousing with our friends Bill and Marsha Rhodes who were in town with a group tour. We spent the better part of their 3 day stay visiting and sightseeing together on this, their second visit to Istanbul. In addition to the pleasure in seeing old friends, we enjoyed the instant community of being included in some of their tour group's outings and going to places we might not have gotten to on our own.
Unlike most cities, our list of "Must See" places was almost all of our guide book's list of recommended sights. Istanbul is so incredibly rich in history that it is a worthy destination its own right. Its strategic location on the outlet of the Black Sea made it a coveted location since the founding of the first Greek city in the first millennium bce and it was a prized possession of the Romans, Byzantines, Crusaders, and Ottomans. The Venetians, Genoese, Russians, Greeks, Brit's and others had Istanbul in their sights over the centuries (and some Greeks still do). Roman mosaic floors and giant water cisterns; the monumentally domed 6th century ce Aya Sofya church that was later converted to a mosque; the iconic Blue Mosque; and old palaces and forts speak to its rich history and captured our attention day after day.
And as nouveau history buffs, we
predictably made a beeline for the Archeology Museum, which was a treasure
trove of finds from forbidden places. The entire top floor of the large museum
exhibited ancient pieces from places that Americans can't travel to, like Syria,
Palestine, and Iraq. These countries were under Ottoman rule when the
antiquities digging craze hit in the late 1880's and many of the finds were sent to
Istanbul. The oldest western civilizations were in modern day Iran and Iraq--places we
aren't likely to visit any time soon--so Istanbul's museum felt like a peek
behind closed doors. And lucky for us, all displays and background information
panels were bilingual with English and the exhibits were fresh and thoughtfully
We sucked the life out of 2 days in this extensive museum but if you are in a hurry or like breezier look, it's worth the price of admission to spend 5 minutes admiring at the Alexander Sarcophagus. It isn't Alexander the Great's sarcophagus but that of a Phoenician king with Alexander's triumphs beautifully carved on the sides with faint remnants of the original paint. It's huge, it's well preserved, and it's in a class of its own among the hundreds of sarcophagi we've seen.
The troublesome part of our Istanbul stay was discovering that our planned departure for Australia/New Zealand was ill-advised because of the excess baggage charges our bikes would incur for any voyage that didn't pass through North America. We spent hours reading the guide book the Rhodes had brought us, searching on the web, and running scenarios while in Istanbul and finally decided to bag the down-under journey for 2005 and take a running start at it late in 2006.
Deciding not to go to Australia was hard enough but then we
had to decide where to go. The last couple of months had been defined by
making hard decisions, especially in the light of weighing risks, and now the
decision was difficult because we had too many choices. We had a blank slate: we
could go anywhere and we had months to play with. Our only constraints were making
choices that didn't require flying because of the excess baggage charges; that
didn't take us into increasingly dangerous lands; and that didn't doom us to
dreadful weather. After days of wild brainstorming, we settled on staying in
Turkey and visiting the big swath of coast oozing with history that we'd missed:
the stretch between Izmir and Bodrum, even though it meant miles of backtracking.
An Unexpected Escort
We took a ferry and then the bus to get south to Izmir from Istanbul--freeways, miles of road construction on stretches we'd already ridden going to Istanbul, and a shortage of lodging along the way had once again pitched us off our bikes. It seemed like the right decision but it was also diminishing our experience of the culture, but not for long. While riding the 4 miles into the city center from the Izmir bus terminal, we spotted a rare cyclist. The 30-40 year old rider in Levis was wearing a helmet and had a helmet mirror--both of which are seldom seen on the few cyclists in Turkey. He followed us a for a while, then passed, and we followed him in heavy 4-lane traffic. It appeared that he waited for us when we were way-laid by turning trucks so we thought we might have acquired a friend.
As we got closer to the center he stopped to chat. He spoke only Turkish and did that with difficulty. Being surprisingly unable to communicate, we decided just to follow him anyway. His route wasn't going directly towards the hotel district, but Bill felt it was close enough and following him fed my persistent hope of being shown a secret route through heavy urban traffic. Soon he delivered us to a new harbor side bike route with grand views of the bay. After a mile or so he turned into town and we followed him on the streets and then on a sidewalk, wondering where we were all going. He suddenly stopped and rolled his mountain bike into a bike shop. We were thrilled as Bill needed a new tail light and we hadn't found one in Istanbul.
There was much fanfare as easily happens in Turkey and we soon were chatting with a half dozen cyclists his age, a few who spoke some English. I was busy answering questions about our eclectic bikes and our route while Bill selected a tail light and in Turkish style, one of the other customers installed it. We finally parted, still not really knowing why we all ended up at the bike shop but glowed for hours from the friendly experience. Ah, Turkey!
New & Old
We would have enjoyed Izmir even without being escorted into the city center on a favorite bike route as Izmir had a comfortable feel about it. Istanbul has a dozen choice sightseeing draws, but the charm of Turkey and the Turks has been trampled out of much of it. Izmir, the third largest city in the country, isn't a tourist destination and still oozes with the sweetness we associate with Turkey: the hotel staff was all smiles and welcoming; the man I paid 75 cents for a melon from his wagon urged me to zip up my fanny pack right away; and there was a pleasant hum and bustle on both the new urban streets and the old world market in the back alleys. We delayed our dinner so as to spend more time mingling on the streets and to soak up more of the vitality of it all. I agreed with Bill: if we were to live in Turkey, Izmir would be my first choice.
Often we come to a city or region and discover it's not the right time to be there, perhaps because of closed museums or big events that crowd us out. But 2005 turned out to be a perfect time to be in Izmir as it opened several new museums in 2004. The disruptions that must have occurred to the old museums from redistributing the exhibits had passed and we indulged ourselves in 5 smallish museums in 2 days.
Money literally has been pouring into Izmir's streets too. Bill read that a new mayor called a halt to construction on a harbor side freeway and instead turned it into a massive waterfront promenade. It was well landscaped and very inviting with its bike lanes, walking paths and benches. We could choose between walking in the broad new green space or in the fascinating close-quarters of the adjacent market streets as we strolled between clusters of museums.
Izmir's museums will never make it on anybody's list of "must see's" they but delivered some missing pieces in our history lessons. We'd had a hard time understanding that the culture we all know as Greek took its form not in Greece but in Anatolia, Turkey's landmass. The early Greeks--the one's before Plato, Aristotle, and the iconic black and red pottery--left the Greek mainland around 1000 bce when the Dorians invaded from the north. Some of the fleeing Greeks settled on a 100 mile long strip of the Anatolian shores and became known as Ionians. They merged their traditions with more eastern ones that trickled west through Anatolia, developing a whole new culture. It was this Anatolian-based Ionian tradition (and language) that was later implanted on the Greek mainland that become known as to us as Greek culture.
For centuries the Ionian culture was the California or New York of
Greek society and everything else, including the Greek mainland, was hinterland. Only when the mainland Greeks
were able to deflect the invading Persians around 480 bce and the Ionians were
not, did the mainland Greek culture surpass that of the Ionians. Even Plato said the
mainland Greeks invented nothing but only improved what was borrowed from
So, being in what was ancient Ionia, we were in nouveau-history-buff heaven. There were sculptures and pottery pieces from all the ancient Ionian cities we'd heard of like Miletos, Smyrna (Izmir), Phocaea (that confusingly we'd seen spelled 4 different ways), and Ephesus. The plots thickened as we read English panels revealing new details: Minoan wall murals typical of Crete were found in Miletos; Homer was born in Smyrna; and the various snits with the more inland Hittites. Luckily, most of these ancient cities were yet to come on our south-bound route along the coast so we'd be picking up more choice bits of this elusive Ionian history. Just like we had discovered on our 2002 trip to more eastern Turkey, Turkey is the place to go to see some of the best finds in Greek history.
Turkish Market & Street Scenes
The energy on the streets of some cities resonates deep within me and Izmir's street scenes were supercharging. There was something so very vital, so authentic that delighted me to no end. Some of it wasn't pretty, but the package was enchanting.
Traditional open markets are daily affairs in the big cities
and once a week events in the smaller towns. Vendors were elbow to elbow selling
neatly stacked fresh produce or fish arranged in rows or whirls. There was
always something different to see, even with products so simple as watermelons. One
vendor stacked his melons so all of the stripes were oriented vertically; another hung a few at eye
level in macramé hangers; and yet another propped up a melon with a quarter
removed to reveal the eye-catching red flesh.
In Turkey, business comes out onto the streets and is nakedly before you. It goes beyond the sidewalk cafes spilling out their doors. In Turkish cities the shoe shine men with portable stands sit on the sidewalk ready to buff shoes while on the customer's feet or for those in a hurry, he will loan you a pair of clogs while you do an errand. A man with a key duplicating machine or a sewing machine may be posted on a corner waiting for customers. And men pushing carts sell snacks and fresh fish.
Away from the market hub other entrepreneurs were busy. A half dozen poles ready for fishing were offered for rent by one man. Another on a bike had 4 vacuum bottle jugs of hot tea and Nescafe to serve the national beverages to fishermen sprinkled for miles along a harbor. A row of colored balloons on a string in the water or against a wall meant that someone else was selling target practice opportunities with a pellet gun.
The sadder sights of life were also painfully visible in the
markets, like the blind and disabled with a hand out. But that is part of the
richness of the experience: it's all there, it's all exposed, and it's all a
part of a strong community. It was sad to see the stray cats but fun to see one
trot off with a sardine that slipped off the vendor's iced display or another
undisturbed as it slept curled up in a crate supporting stacked vegetables.
Sigacik--An Unexpected Treat
It was hard to leave Izmir and trade its pleasant blending of traditional and modern for the not-so-enchanting busy roads, but another ho-hum day of riding delivered surprises at Sigacik. We expected to finding lodging on the main road town of Seferihisar but the promised abodes were actually in Sigacik. Our disappointment in having to ride a few extra miles off our route just for the night was quickly forgotten as the dusty main road was displaced by a country lane through lush citrus orchards. It felt like we had passed through an invisible curtain and entered a hidden paradise. Blooming flowers and smiling faces greeted us on the road as we got closer to Sigacik. The intense green and quiet around us were welcome enough changes but it got better as we arrived at the village and cruised along the low, crumbling medieval wall that still contained the old harbor side town .
We were transfixed. It was the 2nd of October and most of the tourists were gone and yet the day couldn't have been lovelier. The gentle puffing wind and the brilliant blue sky belied the drenching rain storm of only a few hours ago. The villagers were scrapping old paint from boat hulls, mending nets in a new work house and visiting the few small markets. There was enough going on to make it feel alive and yet the calmness made it feel like we had entered another world. This was the Turkey we fell in love with 3 years ago.
This was the kind of experience we remembered--the kind that delivers the glow of an exercised-induced endorphin high without the exercise. Our objective in coming to the town was to find lodging but suddenly we weren't in a hurry. The urgency shifted to soaking up the sweetness of this beautiful village and its harbor cocooned by low scrubby hills.
After cruising around the few streets and admiring the village we reluctantly headed up the hill to a motel recommended by a non-Turkish homeowner we spoke with at a roadside fruit stand in Seferihisar. Situated right above her house, she recommended it if we wanted something nicer than the standard Turkish accommodation and for its view. I wasn't too keen on climbing a hill for a motel room view as often only a few rooms have a sliver of a panorama, but the Dali's Motel was different--it had a commanding view of the village, the harbor, the surrounding hills and that beautiful sky.
We would have stayed an extra night just for the view had the motel not been switching over to its weekends-only routine for the off season. We looked at the dramatic scenery while we munched our dinner and watched the colors on the water and backdrop of hills shift through pinky tones as the sun set. The next morning we barely left the place by noon because we were so captivated by the view as we pretended to pack. The gentle warm winds; the gray and white birds that blended with the gray-green of the olive trees; the harbor scene; and the brown rolling hills juxtaposed with the lush orchards below were mesmerizing. The auditory experience ranged from the twitter of the small birds to the distant wailing of the Muslim clerics call to prayer to the occasional sound of high-pitched Turkish music and a rare hee-haw of a mule. The only thing missing from the feeling we were in paradise was the sweet scent of jasmine or orange blossoms.
A String of Ancient Sites
We struggled to free ourselves from the mesmerizing tranquility of Sigacik and delayed it by even hours more with visiting the well hidden ruins of the Ionian city of Teos. It was 3 pm before we were back on the main road and of course stopped far short of our planned destination for the night. Teos was the first of the string of archeological sites we were anxious to see and we took our time visiting Ephesus, Pamukkale, Hierapolis, Afrodisias, Miletus, Priene and the ancient sanctuary at Didym. Yes, those ruins do all begin to look a like, but we savored what was different about each one as we anchored the history in our minds. The Greeks and Romans had a profound sense of place that can still be felt when standing at the higher points of their old cities and theatres .
Riding southwards to these sites became more pleasant with more time spent on smaller roads and we enjoyed the greenery on the increasingly productive land. Fields of corn and dried and droopy-headed sunflowers were common sights. Trees like fig, evergreen oak, olive, orange, and pomegranate decorated with rosy red fruits added to the interest. We were fascinated and horrified at watching the cotton harvesting operations, which were being done entirely by hand. Neat but spare migrant labor camps appeared on our back roads route, as did the fields they worked and trailers loaded with 200 pound bags of cotton.
Turkey is an amazingly comfortable country for us to be in, it
has its unsettling aspects: too many people living with too little; too
many homeless dogs and cats; and a worn-out ricketiness of many of its buildings
and vehicles. And yet there is a counterbalancing sense of continuity about it
that comes from the people. There was a seamlessness, an unbounded quality
to some aspects of the community life that was very welcoming and endearing.
Life in Turkey outside the cities is startling precarious and pragmatic. Huge loads were piled on anything that moved, from a hired man carrying loads of merchandise on his back in town, to cranky old motorcycles outfitted to haul multiple huge canisters of fuel or water, to overfilled autos or trucks that lumbered down the roads. It looked downright dangerous to us but we could easily imagine the locals wondering "Why not?" And we were sometimes beneficiaries of this pragmatism as regardless of the class of hotel, we were often invited to wheel our bikes into the lobby to unload rather than completing the task on the sidewalk as we are accustomed to doing.
Gulluk, Another Delightful Port Town
An overnight stay in Gulluk 25 miles north of our last stop in Turkey, Bodrum, became 3 nights as a fierce cold settled into Bill's head. Luckily, Gulluk was a delightful place to be. Lodging suitable for convalescing was a bit high for off season in Turkey at $45 a night, but it was a welcome retreat. The new supermarket across the street satisfied our food yearnings and the interesting port and shoreline gave this quiet town a focal point.
There were places to sit in the sun or shade for Bill's daily venture outdoors and interesting places for me to walk. I enjoyed the promenade along the shore where a few fishing boats tied up. The new, broad walkway merged with the tea garden every Turkish town has that is always populated by men who seemingly live out their lives slowly sipping strong tea from glass cups. Two weathered ships dwarfed the short, skinny dock and were practically in the laps of the tea drinkers. If conversation turned dull, the men could entertain themselves by watching the around the clock stream of dump trucks depositing their bauxite loads into bins which fed eager conveyor belts. On the other side of the loading dock was the little fishing harbor with a few dozen boats in the water and a handful in dry dock for repairs. Gulluk's harbor area was one of those compact places with something for everyone to gaze at while sitting or strolling.
While Bill pondered the inefficiencies of the bauxite loading operation, I inspected the details of the fishing enterprises: faded Turkish carpets covered some piles of nets; 2 or 3 men sat around woven baskets carefully applying bits of bait to hooks on fine lines while sipping tea; a half dozen stray cats strategically positioned themselves around a boat with fresh catch; laundry was drying on the line on a boat that looked like it had a crew of 4-6; and on a larger boat a man was adding chunks of ice to large plastic containers being off loaded by a hoist. There were oodles of delicious details in the variously sized fishing operations to scrutinize and like much in Turkey, it was all out in the open.
When Bill could move enough air through his clogged lungs to climb the steep, steep hill up out of Gulluk, we headed on to Bodrum, which couldn't have been more different than Gulluk. They are both Turkish ports, but the similarities ended there. Much to our surprise, Bodrum was a wildly popular tourist resort town. The throng of European tourists on the streets even at the end of October overwhelmed the local population. Riding to the hotel area of Bodrum was like navigating through a carnival. I had a twinge of embarrassment as I remembered how often I'd said "We're headed for Bodrum"--it's like saying your headed for Las Vegas thinking its an ordinary city.
Once we recovered from the shock of being in heart of a holiday resort region, we actually enjoyed ourselves. A number of the young Turkish men hustling for the restaurants or working in the markets were very friendly and chatty. They weren't burnt out from tourists at the end of the season and were quite intrigued with our bike trip. Several asked if we smoked, which rarely comes up in conversations. The Underwater Archeology Museum that we came to see wasn't as grand as I had envisioned but the views from its fortress quarters made for a memorable picnic lunch.
We lingered a few extra days in Bodrum as we were in no hurry to leave Turkey. Map Man coaxed several delightful day-rides out of the rugged coastline as we took time to reflect on our second visit to Turkey. Risk assessment had been a hot topic on our approach to Turkey and it was interesting to review the subject as we were leaving. The the cluster of bombings and attempted bombings in July and August had us seriously questioning our planned visit to the country. If we hadn't been there before and loved it so much, we likely would not made the trip. But risk has to be run through the "cost vs benefit" analysis and we knew the rewards of visiting Turkey were high.
Within hours of being in Turkey we
completely relaxed around the issue of terrorism risk as we began re-experiencing the joys of
visiting the country. Speaking with an American at our first
sightseeing stop of Pergamum made our concerns look trivial as his work was
currently in Iraq. Certainly for him coming to Turkey for vacation made a lot of
sense from a safety stand point. And given the horrific bombings in London this summer we had wondered if Turkey might
not be the safer of the two.
I was however surprised at the end of our first week in Istanbul when rechecking the British government's travel safety website to discover that a bomb had exploded in Istanbul's Taksim Square the very day we had been there with our friends. We strolled past the Square with their tour group in the morning and in the afternoon Bill and I again waltzed across the huge open space on our long sightseeing walk back to our hotel. The website didn't mention the time of day or the exact location in the Square of the explosion, but we were clueless to the event at the time. Fortunately only 1 person was injured. This device, like most of the other attempted or successful bombings in Turkey this year, was very small.
By the end of our stay, the 2-3 terrorists attacks per month
in Turkey had continued during our visit in September and on into October. But we
only learned of the events after the fact and all were small, isolated incidents,
so we continued traveling still having no sensible way to factor in the risk.
Unexpectedly, earthquakes moved up our list of things to worry about as we felt 2 in
October. We shouldn't have been surprised as each historical site we visited had
repeatedly been damaged by earthquakes in antiquity.
With each of the 2 quakes we felt, we stayed in our hotel room waiting for them to be over. But upon hearing some of the stories from the devastating quake in Pakistan we decided to dash out of the building with the next tremor. Bill thought that we were in the kind of buildings that just pancake-flatten in big tremors and that standing in doorways like we do at home was a loser strategy. So, each night before we turned out the lights, we made sure we had clothes and shoes laid out for quick donning in the dark and had our indispensable fanny packs close at hand. We even held 1 nighttime earthquake drill to see how quickly we could get out of bed and to the room door but fortunately we didn't experience any additional quakes. And of course, in the bigger picture, our odds of dying or having a life-altering event from heart disease or cancer far outweigh any of these other risks.
Religion vs State
As we re-examined our Turkey stay, it was instructive to consider the issue of religion in society and government since Turkey's history is so different from ours in that regard. Islam remains highly visible with its many mosques, the conservative dress of most of the people, and the head scarves on some women. The traditional separation of the sexes is seen on the streets and buses as men touch men and women touch women but men and women don't generally touch in public, even if they are married.
And Islam has a special weapon for maintaining its
presence, which is the traditional call to prayer from the high minarets 5 times
a day. The often tape recorded call is blasted out through 4 speakers on each
minaret above the
skylines of most cities, making it all but impossible to not hear it. The volume
was often cranked up so much as to suppress our conversations or wake us from our
sleep. During Ramadan the auditory intrusions increased even more as in a couple
the beginning and breaking of fast at sunrise and sunset were punctuated with
explosions. Of course we assumed they were terrorist bombs the first couple of
times we heard them. And then somewhere around 3:30 each morning a
drummer (live or recorded) went through the streets with the intent of waking
people. Fasting among the faithful begins at sunrise during Ramadan and the wake-up call gives
2 1/2 hours to eat before sunrise. My cynical mind of course wondered how much
of this noise was just the militantly devout hiding behind tradition to keep
their views in the minds of the public.
(We saw though couldn't understand the dialogue of a TV spoof showing an
awakened man throwing things at a Ramadan drummer to shoo him away.)
But the secularists in Turkey have their weapons too to remind the public of their vision of Turkey and national pride is highly promoted. Ataturk, who constructed modern Turkey out of the tatters of the post-WWI Ottoman Empire in 1923, still has a strong presence in the form of bronze statutes and busts, silhouettes and sketches of his head, larger than life photos, and famous expressions with his hallmark signature underneath. While in town, we were never long out of sight of an image of Ataturk or a Turkish flag. He was determined to separate church and state, or in this instance, mosque and state. The bold break with the past Ataturk initiated is still a daily struggle in Turkey as it experiences a resurgence of religious fundamentalism as is occurring in the US.
Bright red Turkish flags seemed
to be everywhere and faded ones must be quickly replaced. The smart school
uniforms were yet another daily reminder of Ataturk's western bias in guiding
the country. And Turkey's seemingly 'parade happy' spirit is a vehicle for
competing with Islam to be at the forefront of people's minds. Some parades and
events feature all of the town's school children with the military playing a supporting
role and others showcase the military with the throngs of grinning children
adding their presence. Regardless of who is featured in the parades, they occur in all of the
cities and small villages on a regular basis.
It was quite odd to look at the Turk's struggles to modernize and westernize and yet realize that in some ways they are doing better at separating religion and government than in the US right now. It is a constant struggle for the Turks but it appears that the lines are more clearly drawn than in the US where religious fundamentalism is now directing national policy. And as Turkey presses to join the EU, I can't help but compare its progress with the US's regress. Turkish citizens are working to gain more freedom of speech under their democracy as things like the Patriot Act erode freedom of expression in the US. In order to become a member of the EU Turkey must improve its human rights record and at the same time the US is increasingly being exposed for the double standard its human rights practices.
Unlike many, the Turks impressed us with their ability to wave their flag to unify people without it being at the expense of other nationalities or fostering fear. Most countries with a heavy emphasis on national identity tend to do so by taking an adversarial position and fueling hatred. We've been amazed in our travels that even museum displays fan the fires of past animosities: Greek displays vilify the Turks; Croatian displays demonize their Yugoslav neighbors; and Serbian displays crankily take pot-shots at many. In contrast, the Turk's portrayal of Gallipoli was a prime example of fostering nationalism without breeding hatred: it was the WWI battle that became a part of the creation myth of the yet to be formed Turkish republic but the rhetoric at that site honors the enemy as well as their soldiers. And they aren't fixated on regaining 'lost lands' of their former empire as are some other nationalities.
2002 vs 2005
We knew from first weeks that this, our second visit to Turkey, wasn't quite as enchanting as our first visit in 2002--probably due to the more urban and touristy nature of the areas we visited this year. More of our cycling time this year was spent on busy through roads instead of roads barely distinguishable from driveways. And feeling like we were seeing the traditional small town and village culture was the exception instead of the rule this time around.
There were several distinctive markers for the cultural differences we experienced between the 2 years. One of the most startling changes was in the level of hospitality we were shown. As soon as we arrived in Turkey this year I purchased a wheel-arranged package of dried apricots in a sturdy plastic tray and a tin of small pistachio bars as hostess-type gifts. Repeatedly in 2002 Turkish people had shared their food or tea with us on our roadside lunch or rest stops and we struggled to pull goodies from our chronically compressed food bag to reciprocate. This time we would be prepared with appealing, non-perishable and durable treats. I kept them handy for our entire 2 month stay in Turkey but amazingly, we didn't have a single opportunity to present them--we just didn't have the welcome mat rolled out as had been previously.
Not only were we finding the Turks less outgoing and hospitable towards us than last time around, they didn't seem to be as social with each other as we had observed in 2002. Then we chuckled as it seemed that no Turkish man was ever alone for long, even at work. No matter how small the business, there always seemed to be another man or 2 there to keep the worker company. And when someone offered us help, it wouldn't be 1 man but 3. That year we joked to ourselves that everything must be done by a committee in Turkey, that nothing seemed to be done by a single individual. But in 2005 we saw plenty of men sitting alone in shops or tending a post. We didn't see the high level of camaraderie and sociability as before.
Our guess was that the difference wasn't in us or the changing Turkish culture but the region. All of our time in 2005 was spent in the western reaches of the country between Istanbul and Bodrum--areas likely setting the pace of change in Turkey. In 2002 we were on the coast south and east of Bodrum and in the interior where perhaps the impact of tourism and modernization was more contained.
Our unexpected 2 month stay in Turkey ended with an immense sense of satisfaction. Abandoning our 2005 trip to Australia resulted in us touring the last big stretch of Turkey rich in historical sites that we hadn't seen, from Izmir to Bodrum. As planned for this year, we also took in a sightseeing plum: Istanbul. And with some disciplined efforts on our part, we also finished viewing a DVD course entitled The Ancient Civilizations of Asia Minor. We'd hauled that 12 hour lecture series around with us for 2 years and never quite got through it, but we saw the finale in Bodrum. Of course, the process was bogged down by viewing each 30 minute lecture at least twice as the material was dense and complex. We were thrilled to combine the lecture series with our travels as it elaborated on sights we'd seen during our 2 visits to Asia Minor. We felt like we'd really seen Turkey and gotten a good grip on its long and significant history. But like the insatiable travelers that we are, we also added a few sights to our "Next Time" list--the list we keep for each country of places we couldn't get to or learned about after leaving the area.
Exploring Turkey has been on of the highlights of our cyclo-touring experience. Ever since our experiences in 2002 we've rated Turkey and the Dolomites of the Italian Alps as our 2 favorite areas to travel and they both continue to hold the top honors. Both Turkey and the Dolomites delight us with intense sensory experiences, with their unconcealed qualities to titillate our inquiring minds, the 'in your face' history, and hours of satisfying biking. Of course, the way they deliver those things is very different.
The Dolomites primarily satiate our visual input channel with a succession of stunning summit panoramas. There is nothing so exquisite as pedaling to the top of a half dozen passes and taking in the grand views. We've done that 3 different summers and have fantasized about spending every summer as cyclotour group leaders there, though for practical reasons will leave that as a fantasy. Part of the thrill of riding in the Dolomites is the naked geology, as many of the faces of the rugged mountains have little or no vegetation hiding the evidence of buckling, folding and uplifting that went on millennia ago. It is the geologic history of the Dolomites that takes center stage for us, though fossilized dinosaur footprints, the Ice Man, and relics from the world wars also captured our attention.
Turkey also delivers some great views but its forte is combining interesting vistas with awesome cultural snippets. Traditional and ancient culture are out in the open in Turkey and so in an hour's ride we may be treated to a stunning view of the coastline, a close-up look at wooden yachts being crafted by hand in the open air, and the sound of traditional music from a wedding streaming up from the next valley. And continental Europe's ancient history just can't compete with that of Asia Minor with the extensive ruins from a couple dozen significant civilizations, including all of the greatest in the European history books. In addition, the history of Anatolia is inextricably linked with the earliest civilizations in places we can't travel, like Iran, Iraq, and Syria. All of this is folded together in Turkey and most of it is accessible by cyclo-touring.
Where We Are Now 11/29/05
We are suddenly in Florence, Italy. Snow, wind and then rain prematurely curtailed our riding and we hopped a couple of trains rather than ride in the miserable weather. When we left Greece on November 20 we were still enjoying weather in the 60's and the sudden drop in temperature when we took the ferry to Ancona, Italy was too demoralizing. We road in the cold weather a couple of days but hung it up when it started snowing. We've just bought cheap suitcases and are getting ready to stash the bikes and panniers before we fly home from Frankfurt on December 6.