July 20, 2015

Last road trip in Turkey

I'm nursing a single-serve french press of INDUSTRIAL strength coffee this morning. I never really measure how much coffee I put in, and today I clearly went overboard. However, such caffeination is totally conducive to regaling a beautiful weekend on the Black Sea.

My Turkish friend and former roommate (and co-worker) in Flagstaff is from Zonguldak, a city on the Black Sea, a few hours east of Istanbul. She is one of the coolest people I've ever met, in terms of adaptability, self-confidence, humility, and of course, her bad-ass haircut. She's got thick black curls cut into an asymmetrical short bob that suits her perfectly. I love it and I'm totally jealous. She's got a cool style, and she loves cats and coffee. I mean, what could be more perfect for me? Oh yeah, and she loves to make jewelry and watch American crime drama shows. And eat ice cream. And gossip. And share her breakfast cooking with me. It was perfection when we lived together. She didn't even judge me for my obsession with peanut butter or Usher.

So, my friend invited Alan and I to join her family for Eid (the end of Ramadan celebration) at their new apartment in Bartın, a city just an hour or so from where she grew up. It was a full day's drive from Kayseri, thanks in no small part to the indecipherable mess that is the highway system in the city of Ankara. We wanted to avoid the toll road, and in doing so ended up adding about 3 hours of extra driving to our trip because we were lost in Ankara. I can justify some of the problem by saying that Turkish highways, like US highways are labeled on maps with numbers: D-100, O-20, etc. However, in the city of Ankara, none of the signs have these numbers. Instead, they only have city names and Ankara neighborhood names (which I don't have memorized...). So, it's really not clear where you are going, except that you're going in the general direction of Istanbul, Konya, or Samsun. These places are hundreds of miles away. No signs said Zonguldak. That was a problem for us.


We made it. I even got to use some Turkish to ask for directions. How cool.

Sweaty and exhausted from the haul, we were warmly greeted and immediately served a multi-course dinner alongside two of her friends from the US, a retired French/Russian professor and a former Kyrgyz Peacecorps volunteer. It was the first of many beautiful, enormous meals that we were served.

After dinner, we went to a nearby beach for an evening dip. Let me just say that Turkey has some of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. I've added the Black Sea to my most beautiful places list after seeing the clear blue water framed by sheer rock cliff faces, white sand, and lush forest. I mean, wow! The placid water was the perfect antidote to a long day of hot driving.

We finished the night at a tea garden, recalling fond memories of our shared experiences in Flagstaff.

The next morning, a massive Turkish breakfast awaited us. In case you don't know about these breakfasts, let me describe the spread in a list:

  • menemen (finely chopped peppers, onions, and tomatoes fried with eggs)
  • fresh bread
  • gozleme (philo dough lightly fried with butter)
  • assorted cheeses
  • assorted olives
  • at least 3 kinds of fresh jam
  • honey
  • helva (a sweet paste/cookie-ish substance)
  • cherry tomatoes
  • cucumbers
  • peppers
  • black tea (tons of refills)
  • Turkish coffee
I'm sure I've forgotten some of the things included, but seriously, it's a huge spread, and there is no extra room on the table. By the end, you've eaten so much that you need to come up for air, and your heart rate has increased by 50% from all the caffeine.

Following that breakfast, we piled into a car headed for Safronbolu, a UNESCO World Heritage city, famed for, what else, Saffron. This city's oldest buildings are reminiscent of German Fachwerkhauser,  those houses made with wooden beams and stucco-type material. After a few hot minutes under midday heat, we ducked into a mostly covered market where venders were selling handmade jewelry, cloth, and saffron-infused sweets and perfume. It was my favorite market yet because it was relatively quiet and low pressure, not to mention that the products were unique, well-priced, and felt of good quality. I picked up a few things, including a handmade beaded bracelet that I fell in love with.

We ordered refreshments in the oldest cafe in the city, shaded by grapevine-covered trellises. We watched as the barista cooked stone-ground Turkish coffee literally over hot coals. It was pretty cool, and totally deserving of the steep price tag. I could have sat in that place for hours.

After returning from Safronbolu, we went back to the beach for more swimming and sand castle building. There is nothing like a bunch of twenty- and thirty-somethings building a sand castle together.

That night we enjoyed the refreshments we had brought from Kayseri together and had a great time well into the wee morning hours.

The next morning, we loaded up on another Turkish breakfast and then set off for a marathon day: beach, family village visit, and restaurant dinner. It might not sound like much, but for someone like me, any of those things by themselves could constitute one day's activity. Let me give some details:

The beach: a different beach than we had been going to, and even more striking because of the cliff faces, rocky island (perfect for Alan to jump off of) and lack of busy streets nearby.

We swam and sunbathed for several hours and then we faced a few challenges. There was only one changing room for the entire beach, so we waited in line. I ended up changing in the WC (bathroom), and disappointingly, I had to sit my bag on the floor. It was horrible, but at least it was so dimly lit that I could barely see what I was sitting it in. Anyway, unshowered and still sandy, we got back in our cars to head for the village. My friend's father is from a small village several kilometers from this beach.

Not more than a minute into our journey, a major traffic jam halted us. Overflow parking on the narrow, steep dirt roads leading away from the beach had clogged traffic so badly that no one could move. And everyone refused to. Horns were honked, flat-palmed hand gestures were made, things were shouted, the police were even called. It was a mess.

Alan should get an award for best driver ever. Getting to a from that beach required some of the most insane maneuvers I've ever seen a mid-sized sedan do, not to mention one with a jalopy manual transmission.We inched up the hill, with just centimeters to spare on either side thanks to the parked cars. It was crazy, but we made it.

In the village, we met all kinds of family members, including the 95-year-old grandmother who is hard of hearing, but still sharp. Living to 95 in rural Turkey is like living to 150 anywhere else. She's got amazing DNA. We also met several relatives who live in Germany. My German was slow to develop, as much of my language space has been taken up with Turkish now, but between the two languages, it was possible to be understood fairly well.

My friend's father led us on a hike (more aptly described as a fast-paced and difficult trek up a thickly forested hill) to the top of a foothill overlooking where a river meets the Black Sea. It was indeed a great view, though I could hardly see for all the sweat in my eyes.

Following the sweaty hike, we went to the bridge overlooking the same river we had seen flowing into the ocean. A major flood 20 years ago had wiped out the old bridge, most of which had come to rest just in front of the new bridge, blocking trees and other large debris from passing. It looked pretty bad, actually.

After some drawn out Turkish goodbyes to family members, we set off for our dinner date in a small town about an hour away in Amasra.

What a treat that dinner was! We ate these tiny and delicious fried fish and drank the Turkish liquor called Rakı. It was one of the best meals I've had in Turkey. I learned how to pull out the small bones efficiently, and before long I had a huge pile of bones on my plate and my hands were covered in grease, but I loved it!

By the time we finished our yogurt and honey desert, I was really exhausted. We arrived back to her family's home around 1:00 AM and I think we all passed out immediately.

The next morning/afternoon we ate one final Turkish breakfast before loading up the car to come back to Kayseri. We said our goodbyes, and promised to visit each other in our various corners of the world. I hate those goodbyes because you really never know when you'll see that person again. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place to come back to our very polluted city life. It took us about 9 hours to return, thanks once again to the mystery that is Ankara's highway system.

Back at home, Alan and I cracked a few cans of Efes, loaded up the washing machine with our super dirty clothes, and let the weekend soak in. The trip north was a great ending to our time in Turkey. We've got about 10 days left, and I think we will spend most of that time organizing and packing for our next journey.