Friday, November 29, 2013

Taşucu, warm and welcoming

After three easy rides I reached Taşucu, a little town on the coast of Mediteranean Sea from where passenger ferryboats depart to the port of Girne in Norther Cyprus. In the summer it almost doubles in population due to swarming tourists; right now it's rather sleepy and tranquil. Most of its activity is focused around the ferry port; also my host, Seçkin, is a coast guard and works on one of the boats, usually sailing on the coast of Mersin Province.

Despite its size and rather not many things to do in the town itself I haven't left Taşucu for nearby bigger Silifke, thinking I didn't come that far from landlocked Ankara just to immediately escape from the sea. Hanging around in the center, I came across a map of the surroundings and thought it would be pleasant to hike to nearby Akgöl and Göksu delta, one of the world's best preserved wetlands in the world located between Taşucu and Silifke. Looking at the map it seemed to me that I could easily follow coast, by which I could keep people and noisy roads at bay. As I walked along the coast, at some point I reached another part of the port that didn't seem to have a direct passage, so I forgot about my idea of a longer hike thinking that looking for effective detours would take too much time and by the time I reach my destination I'd already have to come back because of the short length of the days. Later my host told me about the big detour you have to take to reach the delta and I felt quite wistful for a lost chance but hanging around the coast, writing and even some studying (Portuguese!) while listening to the humming of the sea was not any worse than some physical activity.

This visit was also special thanks to my wonderful hosts, Seçkin and his Philippino wife Aiza, who are fascinated with Asia and strengthened my belief that I definitely have to experience the Far East one day. One the other hand, I inspired Aiza, who would like to finally see Europe, to do a short-term EVS. Who knows, maybe one of our future reunions will take place on the Old Continent?

Many boats serve the purpose of hotels or restaurants, there's even an aquarium!

I fell in love with murals along the promenade painted by kids from different countries over five years ago.

Winter definitely doesn't want to come to this place...

Monday, November 25, 2013

Old roads, new insights

Last weekend I hitchhiked to Taşucu, a little town a stone's throw from Adana, Tarsus and Mersin, the first cites I visited in Turkey over one year ago. Most part of my route led along the Ankara-Adana highway, which I passed on my way to South-Eastern Turkey and Iraq, also last year. I hesitated a lot whether such a long trip would be doable in one day, considering how short the days are now and how much I don't feel like hitchhiking in Turkey after it darkens. However, along the highway between Ankara and Adana besides Aksaray there aren't any major towns; frankly speaking, there's vast emptiness, so I banked on that to score long rides taking me almost to my destination.

The trip didn't have a get-go to wish for. The first car to stop was something between a passenger car and a luxurious version of a minibus; those I associate with tourists rentals. I was confused by the number of the seats and made sure that it wasn't a ride I'd have to pay for. When I said I was going to Mersin, the driver replied "I'm also going to Mersin"and quickly added "But I'm not going to Mersin alone." I was dumbfound at what that statement was supposed the mean when after a few meters he pulled over and defiantly blurted: "Sex?" Yes, just a single word, as straightforward as it could be. I left the car immediately saying nothing more than "hayır" but tempted to be more brazen. Even when I was already outside, the guy still tried his luck: "I'll give you money." I cursed under my breath and waited for another ride.

I jumped when I noticed a woman in a car that stopped in the middle of the road. Creeps I meet when I hitchhike have little and short-term impact on my mood, but still after an experience with any weirdo I embrace rides where I immediately know I can feel at ease. In this case the passengers were a family consisting of a middle-aged man, his female cousin around the same age and his father. They lived in Sincan, a large metropolitan district of Ankara, but the elderly man was born and raised in a village south of the capital. The family was on their way to Mersin to visit the middle-aged man's daughter who had been living there for one year with her family and running a beauty parlor. At the same time it was the elderly man's first trip that far - except for regular visits to his home village even very nearby Tuz Gölü or Aksaray were new to him.

It was somehow touching to see how the elderly man's son and niece were guiding him during the trip. They made sure that he kept an eye open out for every high mountain we passed, every change in the terrain, every feature yet unknown to him. In the beginning of the trip he just chuckled, observing that the interminable fields and barren hills lining the landscape on both sides of the road weren't any different than immediate surroundings of Ankara. When we were passing Tuz Gölü, he joked that he couldn't see a lot because hills that could make a good viewpoint were on the other side of the lake. I added that in the summer the lake is much more beautiful, with its sparkling, wedding-white surface that resembles a tiled floor and minute flowers managing to thrive on its salty banks.

After Aksaray the terrain started getting more mountainous. The middle-aged man exclaimed "baba, look at the big mountain in front of us!" I took out my map and tried to figure out our localization. There was a mountain 3268 m high marked on the map and he asked me whether it was the one we were passing. "No, it's too small, it can't be over 3000 m tall," I replied. Before Ulukışla we entered a highway and from then on the man's attention was incessantly fixated on towering, wooded rocks. He also seemed to enjoy passing a large number of tunnels and viaducts along the way.

This 83-year old man was the most talkative of all my co-passengers and probably the most talkative elderly person I've met in Turkey. While we were chatting I described my job in Ankara, to which he responded emphasizing the importance of education and deplored that language teaching in Turkey is below par, with which I sadly agreed - maybe in private schools where you have to shell out lot of money English teaching comes up to European standards but kids in public schools progress at a snail's pace. [It's been over three months since my Güçkobir student, Cansu, started the school year and they still haven't plodded through the first chapter of the book. I'm glad that at least with me she can advance quicker but in the little time I have left in Ankara I can't have much impact on her.] The man could hardly contain the joy that his granddaughter spoke fluent English and even his great grandson has already started to learn English at the age of five. "Chirping like a bird," the niece added. The man also told me that his daughter had once spontaneously invited a couple of travelers passing by Ankara to their house. Thanks to her language skills he could also get to know the visitors.

I admired his curiosity and thirst for knowledge. He seemed to be more well-rounded than many young Turkish people who, with easy access to the Internet and other media, should have some idea about the world affairs but appear as if they were living in a hermit bubble. [eg. I've been asked many times whether Polish people speak English as the main language; upon finding out that we have a language of our own some people would frown with disbelief "does a language like lehçe (Turkish word for "Polish") exist at all?" (as if Turkish and English were the only languages in the world)]

The family was going to Mezitli, a district of Mersin located very close to the city bypass. I was just telling them that I wanted to get off before the off-ramp and stay on the highway when the middle-aged man announced that from where they were going to another main road was going my direction. I was already sensing their intentions, which confirmed once we reached Mezitli. We met with the younger family members, after which my drivers announced I would go to my destination by dolmuş. I played a loosing game pleading them to let me hitchhike. "I like the adventure, you've already helped me a lot." My drivers unwaveringly put me in a dolmuş going to Silifke, arguing that "not all people are like us." If only they were all like that Turkey, with its very amazing hitchability, would be a hitchhiking bliss...

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Ulus, the place I'll miss the most

My stay in Ankara is slowly coming to an end - hard to believe that one year, which seemed a time to me before I came, is almost over. I made a list of things without doing of which I definitely can't leave the city. Having a lot of free time in my hands these days yesterday I decided to combine business with pleasure, took my Portuguese notes and went to study on the top of Ankara Kalesi and stay there for the sunset - first check-off on my to-do list.

The castle is located on the top of a hill that marks the highest point of Ankara, in Ulus ("nation" in Turkish), the historical center and one of the oldest parts of the city. Even nowadays the this neighborhood still retains its importance. Like elderly people used to their old city center I also prefer visiting Ulus over hanging around in too-posh-for-me Kızılay. Compared to the latter, where you seek for exciting nightlife, fancy restaurants and brand stores, Ulus is full of street sellers of everything, from simits and other pastries, through tacky souvenirs and clothes, to kaçak cigarettes and electronics. It's the rough-cut part of Ankara which hasn't been prettied up and sterilized for the tourists. But that's what makes the place authentic and pulsating with life; it's the time-unaffected Asian side of Turkey that lives in its own pace. To me Kızılay, which could easily be taken for a shopping district of any big European city, misses it by a mile...

The first time I went to Ulus was with my housemates Elisa and Michał, just a few days following my arrival to Ankara. We arrived quite late and didn't manage to see a lot, but I already knew that would be the place where I'd take my future couchsurfers and other guests. The first opportunity presented itself just before Christmas, when I received Stasia (Russia), Taylor (Canada) and Stefan (Australia). Climbing Ankara Kalesi, not even knowing if we were following the right route among dilapidating gecekondular, eating dumpster dived food, helping my guests to communicate with the locals, making sure the food Taylor wanted to buy in the market was vegan, local vendors staring in amazement while Stasia and Taylor were juggling, Taylor's joy because he "got these dried apricots for 10 kuruş less for a kilo!" Still such vivid memories...

After that, I've been coming over and over - with new housemates, with kochanie, on my own. I adore standing atop the perilous ruins (no guardrails of any kind!) and recognizing different parts of the city, reaching with my eye from the surrounding ghettos of Ankara even as far as my neighborhood. Yesterday I wasn't very lucky with the views - the air seemed extremely polluted and instead of bright sky I had the horizon covered by a thick layer of gray/brown dust but at least my studying was more productive than at home, where I always get distracted by internet and other things around me.

After sunset I directed my steps to Ulus market which, in spite of being loud, dirty and packed to the brim with people, unquestionably stands as my favorite place to stock up on fruits and vegetables, usually costing much less here than in chain supermarkets. I also love the bright colors of various spices and grains and the way the sellers arrange them. The local vendors are incessantly attracting their customers and calling out what they have on sale and how cheap you can get it. They are also quite friendly and usually happy to exchange a few words with a customer - at least when they hear my foreign accent, they get curious, start guessing what I'm doing in Turkey (ha, some even make up a story of my life themselves) and praising my Turkish skills after hearing just a few sentences. That doesn't happen to me often in bigger stores where workers usually do nothing except for doing their job and rarely pay much attention to people just passing by.

As much as I'm slowly getting tired of many aspects of living in busy and disorganized Ankara and sometimes wishing myself in more undisturbed place, Ulus is probably the only part of this havoc that I'd happily move wherever I get to live in the future.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Quick Beypazarı getaway

In spite of having lived in Ankara for over 10 months I've never given much consideration to exploring "my own backyard." My hitherto trips have always brought me to places located in the radius of more than 200 km from my city. I've known that the nearby town of Beypazarı was worth visiting but always thought "later, when I really have nowhere else to go." "Later" unexpectedly came this weekend. For the first time in months I wasn't enthusiastically getting ready to go to somewhere distant just because I was supposed to have a meeting about a job position on Saturday. Only the day before I got to know that the meeting would come to nothing - but a lack of plan wasn't a reason to stagnate at home so I quickly organized my backpack, made some research about the surrounding nature, found out how to reach the road that would take me to Beypazarı and impatiently waited for my day off.

The positive aspect of going to a nearby location is the lack of hurry that accompanies every distant trip. Instead of hastily waking up at 6 I slept in until 9.30 and left the house only after 11. Before I reached Yenikent - the northwesternmost neighborhood of Ankara - it was already 1. It was damn cold and I was glad to have decided to take my winter jacket, at the same time hoping the weather would ameliorate once I reach my destination.

My wish came true and Beypazarı welcomed me with glorious sunshine. I thought I'd rather spend a day like this in the nature than in a city (town, to be honest), having just escaped from one. I was lucky with the last ride since the drivers were going to İnözü Vadisi, a natural wonder just north of the town along the road leading to Bolu. As soon as found some less steep terrain to reach the bottom of the valley, I took the track and instead along the busy road I walked on tilled fields or along the dry İnözü Çayı. The area surprised me with abundance of vegetation - far cry from the nearest surroundings of desert-like Ankara. Most of the trees were still green, though the first signs of slowly arriving fall could also be seen as leaves turning to yellows, oranges and scarlets.

I got back to Beypazarı around 5, partially walking, partially by car that I didn't want to stop, but the driver himself asked me if I were going that direction, so I accepted the offer. It was still bright and I could have explored the town more but after the long hike in the İnözü Vadisi my backpack, which I always carried on my with me, started getting too heavy, so I decided to rest for a while, planning to recommence my walk after a while to make the time pass quicker before - being homeless for the night - I could safely get into some mosque to fall asleep there. The only place where I managed to find benches and which wouldn't be so crowded was... just on front of a mosque that had a very central location. I was sitting there and it was getting dark when a young woman approached me, asking if I weren't waiting for somebody. I said I was just having some rest. She got worried that I must have frozen and invited me to a nearby workshop of hers and her husband's, so that I could warm myself up by the heat of the hearth.

In the atelier, by using a laser machine that with high precision cut the desired patterns, my hosts - Şükran and Ramazan - were making various kinds of wooden decorations - keychains, caskets, fridge magnets, photo frames, clocks. Their little daughter was also in the atelier, playing hide-and-seek in a big cardboard box that a washing machine came in and making silly faces at the family's dog. My hosts were just getting ready for preparing another set of wooden boxes. Everything was done by the machine whose operating - according to Ramazan -  is the only more difficult part of the production. The design is made on the computer using CorelDRAW and only the final montage of the parts isn't done by a machine.

"Do you know where you'll stay for the night?" the couple asked me.
"Not yet."
"You don't have a hotel or anything?"
"No, definitely not a hotel, they're too expensive."
As our conversation continued and the topic of my accommodation was brought up again, I revealed that I was thinking of sleeping in a mosque. "Hehe, I've also slept a lot in the mosques," Ramazan replied and decided for me that I would stay with them. Şükran agreed, adding that at night it would get too cold in a mosque. When the laser machine finished cutting the last pattern, we cleaned the workshop and left for my hosts' house.

We passed a wonderful evening where I had a chances to get to know a different mindset of Turkish people, learn about their values, share which features of Turkishness I find totally different from what I know in Europe and what I like so much that I'd bring it home. At first I felt a little confused what to say, since they expressed some political/religious views that particularly don't correspond with mine, but quickly found out that people are more important than labels used to describe them. My hosts moved to Beypazarı from Ankara hoping to find more peacefulness than in a big city - and I think I also found it, just one hour away, in my short escape from the capital's hectic life.