Monday, May 14, 2012

Merhaba Türkiye!

Back in Poland, I had the longest continuous period of staying in my home town since leaving for the USA in June 2010 - all because of trying to complete my driving course as quickly as possible. One month and a half felt exceptionally long and I started feeling itchy, so when a friend of mine, Asia, told me about a short-term volunteering project in the south of Turkey, I didn't hesitate - it was an immediate "count me in!" My first flight after Keflavík - Oslo in June 2011, my furthest east since visiting Bulgarian seaside in 2004. Moreover, there was a purpose to this trip other than just wandering around - a good opportunity to see how it is to be a volunteer before taking part in a long-term project.

The project was carried out in Tarsus, one of the oldest cities in the world going back to at least 3000 BC, located on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Notable as the birthplace of St. Paul, it's full of religious relics. But there were other things abut Tarsus that were up my alley. I really liked its quaint, old neighborhood with old stone and timber houses, but also more industrial parts which made my Moroccan memories revive. Certainly, Tarsus looks more European than cities in Morocco (still being very far from real Europeanness), but my associations were similar. Even our base for one week, Tarsus Belediyesi, was located on an industrial site. Garages, landfills and factories were our closest surrounding. We also went to a big park where our entire group became a major attraction for Turkish kids. There were two boys who followed us all the time, carrying weighing scales and packs of sunflower seeds. You'd think they'd wanted some money from us but they just enjoyed their time chatting with us (even if our Turkish was limited to "merhaba" and "teşekkürler" and their English - to "yes, yes, yes!"), working out on a playground that resembled an outdoor gym or posing for photos.

Views from a hill close to our base

Arabic suras wake me up fro my dream... Photo by Asia

Father of the Republic is everywhere.

German-speaking men from baklava and pomegranate juice stalls

Photo by Asia

The topic of our project was environmental issues in Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Spain and Turkey - countries the participants came from. We shot three movies, a task that took us less than we expected, so we had more time off to see nearby cities. Apart from activities during the day, we had cultural nights where representatives of each country introduced their food, drinks, dances, music, traditions and history to others.

Bulgarian home-made lutenica

My second favorite table after Turkey - Italy

Spanish corrida

Polish bounty...

No, I didn't hitchhike this one. Photo by Asia

Like in a Moroccan grand taxi... Photo by Asia

Our trips started with Adana. The fourth biggest Turkish city boasts the largest mosque in Turkey, Sabancı Merkez Camii. This most famous landmark of Adana is surrounded by fountains and gorgeous gardens in bloom but its interior is what you'll really remember.

It was my first time in a mosque ever. Before entering it's mandatory to take off your shoes. I didn't have to cover my hair like Muslim women but got a long skirt to cover my legs - you should expose as little flesh as possible in any case, both men and women. This mosque was also an exception from the rule that women come in using a different entrance than men.

Faithful Muslims pray five times a day. Instead of sticking to fixed hour, prayer times change from day to day and are determined by the position of the Sun. There's a clock in the Sabanci Mosque that indicates appropriate prayer times for each day. Since we arrived before prayer time, the mosque was very quiet, with only a few people saying their prayers. The beauty of the mosque made me go weak at knees. It's largely devoid of furniture, people sit on soft carpets covering the floor. The walls are decorated with elaborate ornaments in subdued colors and there are no statues or pictures of the prophet. Muslims believe that you should only worship the real God instead of staring at an object created by people. They strictly forbid any idol pictures that could distract worshipers during their prayer. Catholic churches aren't even remotely like this, dripping with gold, paintings and sculptures of Christ dying on the cross. The atmosphere there was also so much different than in a church. There were some small kids running around going completely insane, playing hide-and-seek and laughing all the time. I guess they were old enough to understand if an adult told them off for their bad behavior. But no one actually did. I can't even imagine old, grumpy ladies putting up with little brats behaving like this in a church.

Photo by Raya

Photo by Raya

A short visit to Mersin focused mainly on visiting a local market. Instead of seeing more of the city, our Turkish leaders took us to Kızkalesi, a little town with a wide beach sixty km from Mersin. There we were given three hours free time on the beach but since it's impossible for me to stay and fry in a place like this for so long, and since this town must have had something interesting about it, no matter how touristy it looked, I went exploring.

It was touristy, indeed... Even in the off-season I could hear some German in bars and restaurants. That's right, Germans bear the palm in terms of number of tourists coming to Turkey. Add Turks with German passports and you have the explanation why resorts on the Mediterranean Sea are besieged by thousands of members of this nation. It was funny to be taken for a German and not for a French/Spanish/Italian, like in Morocco. I couldn't stop giggling when, instead of "Bonjour Madame," a soft-spoken young guy I passed gave me an offer not to resist: "Guten Tag. Möchten Sie eine Tatto?"

Kızkalesi apparently aims to meet the needs of flocking tourists. The streets are lined with hotels; new ones are being built. However, they look look like gems in the middle of debris - fine-tuned, but surrounded by heaps of rubble or dense bushes and modest houses hidden amidst them.

I didn't intend to disturb anybody's privacy while I discovered the surrounding but unintentionally I entered a private property - no fences there; if there was one I would certainly not go any further. I was on my way out of the property when a man who noticed me invited me to drink çay with him and his little daughter. They showed me their garden, a hidden cave and took me to an apple orchard where I tasted the most flavorless apples in my life - they were immature and really sour. The little girl voraciously devoured them and I tried really hard not to show my frown. Surprisingly, you can see fruits like this on every market and they seem to have a wide appeal among locals. Turks really have a strange sense of taste.

The man who spoke quite good English was the owner of a restaurant near the beach. He also offered to take me to some nearby caves but because of lack of time, my need to be independent and maybe also because of cautiousness I refused. But going to his restaurant, which turned out to be located something like 200 meters from where my project mates were enjoying their sunbathing session, was acceptable. While we played backgammon (he apparently let me win every time), he inundated me with invitations to his hotel, campsite and whatever else he owned. "If you come here in the summer, I can offer you a very good deal, a room for fifty liras per/for night..." Are you crazy calling this a good deal?! I didn't feel like telling a long story about couchsurfing, so I told him I always camp in my tent.

When I was on my own again, I reached a minor road going uphill. Its beginning was also dotted with hotels but the higher I went, the more the touristic infrastructure got sparse and was replaced by modest houses and huts made of wood. That was something I looked for, it was finally a countryside and not European civilization anymore. The road winded through some fertile agricultural areas. I shared my vegetarian lunch with a woman working in the field who smiled at me and even tried to make a conversation, passed kids riding bikes, rolling on scooters and saying "hello" to yabanci. My personal favorite was a very humble hut in the middle of a field overgrown with weeds, with no front door and no more than two-three rooms inside and very loud, American rap blasting out from inside.

Kızkalesi castle - photo by Asia

For a week I felt like a traveler (or maybe a tourist?) I haven't been for a very long time: traveling with a big group instead of being on my own or with one travelmate, going where everybody wanted to go (most of the time) instead of following my footsteps, moving quickly to the next point on the list instead of leaving when I felt I was saturated enough with the place to go on, using public transportation most of the time instead of hitchhiking. Before leaving Asia had told me "you can either love or hate Turkey, but nothing in between." In my case it was love at first sight. I was burning with excitement at the very thought of hitchhiking all the way from Poland to Ankara in a matter of weeks.


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