This is not the baklava I brought home– the baklava from Güllüoğlu I’d wished to buy on that final day in Istanbul. Instead, my colleagues would have to settle for second best: a box of walnut and pistachio baklava from the baker up the street. They’d never know the difference. I would cautiously secure a kilo’s worth of sweetness in my bag to weather the long journey home with me.
My departure that day was met with rain and June gloom, a partial reflection of my mood upon leaving. Today marks my arrival at another destination: day 30 and the end of my post-trip journey of creating a travel journal to solidify the memories. The postcards of images gave me creative boundaries within which to think and reconstruct my trip, where the stories embedded themselves within my being. This little project was more for me than for you, but without your eyes reading on the other end, I probably wouldn’t have completed it. So thank you for traveling with me. It’s day 30 and like my departure, feels a bit bittersweet.
After 23 hours of travel I walked through my front door and anxiously unpacked the baklava to see if it had made it home intact. I peeled back a wet canvas flap on the suitcase. Everything in my bag was soaked; the airline must have left my luggage out in the rain before loading. The bag of baklava and everything around it was covered in sticky syrup. The rain had melted the sugar and it had oozed out onto everything in the suitcase. Lucky for my colleagues, the baklava was still in tact. (There is so much sugar in that stuff that losing some was no set back.) My initial disappointment over the mess was then met with the realization that the trip had literally penetrated all of me, down to the objects I’d carried home. The sweetness would stick, long after the journey was complete.
A new moon has risen and marks the end of the month of Ramadan. May the fasters find their sweets!
Our dinner plates had been cleared but we weren’t finished dining just yet. After sitting out on the patio at Goreme Restaurant we were lured inside for dessert and drinks by the traditional Turkish living room set up: loungy low-lying tables and cushions covered in beautiful fabrics. There’s a no shoe policy on these carpets, and should you need to get up to use the restroom there are plastic sandals waiting for you at the entrance to the tiled hallway. The lights are set low, yellow tones hit the beige walls and make everything a bit more subdued.
What was really happening inside was what I’d been waiting for the whole trip: traditional Turkish music coming from an instrument I’d never see before: the saz. An older man with pristine white hair and a dark face was strumming it. He’d been lost in the music for hours already. I recognized him from day one-he was almost a fixture at this place. Every day we passed by he’d be sitting out on the front patio during the off hours looping through a harmonious continuum, howling lyrics with the power to conjure up spirits from the otherworld. But it was a beautiful howl, one that held you captive with its perfect repetition.
The saz is a guitar-like instrument from the lute family. It has a tear shaped bulbous base and a thin neck that produces arresting notes, high pitched notes, notes that we don’t have a language for in Western music. (Literally. The saz has extra frets that produce notes not found in Western music.) Music man knocks the base of the saz while he’s strumming. It adds a deep base beat and then he fills the space with lyrics in a haunting voice that echoes in the back of his throat and makes everything else echo: the saz, the base, his voice, my body. There really aren’t words to describe something like this. You have to listen. You have to be there. Here.
We were now in his living room. He effortlessly switched between the saz and violin- picking up a different instrument that was part of the same journey. The sound is hypnotic, trance-like, leaving you somewhere other than where you started. It was a meditation and he was inviting us in. He motioned to me with an extended hand pointed towards the floor. He moved from his seated position to the middle of the room, plucking the violin while I danced next to him, unsure of how and what was appropriate. I slowly began to move, to feel it, to let my body do the singing. Someone gave me castanets to clack between my fingers, my friends joined in, and for a moment, the staff at the restaurant stopped what they were doing to partake. One of the waiters tapped out rhythms on a hand drum, another one sang vocals and floated through the dance circle. The ghost of a whirling dervish. His music had me whirling. It was the most beautiful conversation we never actually had.
Audio clip is of the music man on violin and MM on castanets.
Photo: Debarshi Das
What would Turkey be without its waiters? I can’t help but grin when I look at this photo. Somehow I only made away with one (photo, not waiter), but had I documented all of the waiters we encountered, I’d have enough content for an entirely new round of posts. Hannah and I were convinced the Turkish Board of Tourism required all restaurants to hire clever, attractive Turks to serve up the delectable mezes with their home grown hospitality. This one was particularly special, so special we came back twice for him. Or the gozleme. He’ll never know which.
We were in Goreme with our friends at “Köy Evi” (Village House), a restaurant recommended by a local contact. It could have just as well been a recommendation for Serdar himself. This sweet young thing- he wouldn’t tell us his age- was a soccer star studying tourism in Keyseri, the main city in the region, and making some cash on the side with his stand up comedic shtick fashioned as food service. Our banter batted back and forth across the field, through the multi-course meal of veggie appetizers, gozleme entrees, and baklava dessert. It was a team of four foreigners up against his solo show. Word play with bits of shared vocab, misunderstandings and mispronunciations, all mixed in between the delivery of freshly baked bread and lentil soup. He’d repeat back after us, botching “Maureen” for “boring” and throwing in his own nonsensical rhymes like “a little little in the middle,” followed by bouts of shameless laughter. The boy was ready to trade his tips for tricks to fuel his way onto mastering the art of customer satisfaction.
He’d found fans in us at this Village House, a humble establishment with its patio dining and cozy blankets to keep the diners warm where local ladies rolled fresh dough onto their griddles to fill incoming orders of gozleme. We’d stuffed ourselves full with baskets of bread before our order had even arrived and still managed to make room for the freshly baked flatbread filled with sauteed spinach and indiscernible spices, grilled to mouth watering perfection. This meal was more than complete; it came with entertainment and a new friend, a çok güzel waiter: our local MVP.
This one is left to stand alone: the view atop Simena Castle. A break from the sea provides a moment to snap this shot where I peer through this manmade frame and notice yesterday’s swim spot can be seen in the distance. Postcard perfect.
I’m sure her husband wouldn’t be happy if we bestowed her with the title of Captain, but it didn’t really matter because everyone on board knew she steered the ship forward. Fatma seemed to be everywhere at once, from kitchen prep to dropping the anchor, moving about the boat with the steady ease of someone whose feet have walked a lot of decks in their lifetime. The scarf tied to her head plays a dual role here, keeping her hair tidy and tucked in, while also keeping to her Muslim culture. Her olive skin is marked with a lifetime of the sun’s stories. Long wrinkles extended from her eyes out to the horizon, as if her face is always smiling, but she’s more practical than that. She wears those lines as a reminder of the decks she’s walked, a mark of where she’s from.
Her affection is shared through the delicious meals she prepares, the kind where you wish your stomach was larger than it was. My worries of white bread and pasta were put to rest with her fresh salads and vegetarian wonders: watercress with garlic yogurt sauce, bulgar with spices, fried cauliflower, zucchini patties, green beans in tomato sauce, rolled ‘cigarette’ pastries with cheese and parsley. I didn’t see one thing come from a can on this boat, and I was probably the happiest of the bunch, each meal spilling over with vegetables of every color.
She and Usef walked these decks day in and day out during the high season, welcoming new faces aboard each week and sharing life with them for four to seven days at a time before the cycle began anew. Neither her English nor my Turkish were good enough to have any substantial conversation, but we shared plenty through simple sentences and other ways of communicating.
During our last full day aboard after cruising next to a sunken city, Usef killed the engine and pumped some traditional Turkish music through the speakers. We were the only visible boat on the horizon- an island lay to our right, distant coastline to the left, and an open sea in front of us. Fatma came around to the bow. Her hips began to sway east to west, giving a double pulse in each direction. Her arms stretched up to the clouds, wrists rotated round, and a gentle smile emerged as she invited us to join in dance as we floated down her Mediterranean sea.
Who knows what kind of trouble I’m going to get in with a title like this. Let’s rewind a moment and review how I got here. It’s week three and I’m on my own. Hannah has left for home and up until a few days ago I had no idea how I’d be spending my solo week in Turkey. Sarah, my best friend from home had just returned from the V-Go boat cruise and we met up in Cappadocia where I waited for a full report so that I could then make my decision to book the same cruise or not. She and her man had a fabulous time, save for the drunk captain, the meals of bread and pasta, and the overbooking which had pushed the one solo traveler from his bunk to the upper deck to sleep under the stars and share a bathroom with the cabin crew. Maybe that’s what you get for $200. But they urged me to do it. Even I can stomach four days of white bread in return for four days of blue waters, gypsy dreams and misty Mediterranean mornings. My trusty friends at Tourdocia Travel in Goreme set the whole thing up for me and triple confirmed my vegetarian diet with the crew. This pisces was ready to set sail.
Captain Usef and I met before we even boarded the boat. He was seated in the main office in Fethiye, belly bulging a foot in front of him, chubby cheeks pushing his eyes into a squint even in the shade. A shiny bald head and burly mustache made for quite a caricature of a fat, middle-aged Turkish man- one who would hold my life in his hands for the next few days, the captain of “Little Mustafa.” I tried to share simple pleasantries with him but he wasn’t having any of them. Nor did he speak any English. He just stared back at me like I was yet another needy white girl way too invested in the details of her own vacation. Thank God I hadn’t told him I was vegan.
The belly was a clear clue into his world: this man loved to eat. Just a half day into our cruise, we’d docked at the St. Nicholas Island where we’d be spending the night. I’d heard about the ‘pancake lady’ who cruised around on a little dinghy and sold her treats to the big boats. Well hardly half way into our cruise she floated in, sweets in hand. Usef and his wife Fatma, our cook, were already starboard chatting up these fellow cruisers. Years of sailing the Turkish Med meant they had friends in every bay. As they babbled way, I was still trying to digest the fact that a woman with a hot round griddle in between her legs had just sailed up in a boat and was offering us gözleme, Turkish pancake.
I cozied up to Fatma on the side of the boat trying to get a better look at what cooking. “Turkish viagra,” she said with a big smile. The lady was generously spooning Nutella all over the thin round of dough she had just rolled out onto the hot griddle. She placed banana slices on top and in under five minutes, she had rolled the entire thing up into a thick triangle of sugary gooeyness and shoved it into a brown paper sleeve. Astonished and still marveling at this alternative water economy, I had hardly smiled back at Fatma in response to her comment before she had popped a piece of Turkish viagra directly into my mouth. Melted Nutella oozed out onto my lips and my smile spread wider, partly from the Turkish viagra, but more from the fact that Mama Fatma had just welcomed me into her clan. I knew I’d be in good hands from here on out. I proudly voiced ‘çok güzel ‘ (very good) during and after every single meal of her delectable cooking. And of course I’d play with the Turkish viagra joke long after the viagra itself had run out.
Finally…sandals! This is where the trip takes a true turn toward vacation. Hours before, I’d boarded the Küçük Mustafa, a wooden sail boat in the Turkish gulet fashion where the boats have retired their sails for motors that leisurely power tourists down the southwestern Mediterranean coast. After a rocky start to the trip where I’d been told that an additional passenger of either sex might be assigned as my cabin mate (there was only one double bed in the room), and despite my insistence that that was a ludicrous possibility I was not comfortable with- and anyway-wasn’t I in a Muslim country (?), the manager assured me one of us could sleep up on deck under the stars. My soon-to-be new friend assured me that depending on who this potential cabin mate was, it might not be such a bad thing. Either way, I had found an ally in the cause who agreed to switch rooms with me- his bunks for my double.
That aside, we had set ‘sail’ and within hours had plunged into the crisp, clear waters of Butterfly Valley, cruised by Ölüdeniz, the most photographed beach in the Mediterranean, and had just docked next to St. Nicholas Island to watch the sunset. I can’t remember one bit of history about it- after all, I was now on “vacation,” but I do remember having a bite of “Turkish Viagra” (more on that later) before walking up the island hill to settle into this portal-perhaps ruins from the Lycian people. The setting sun gently hit my sunburned face, curls were tight with excitement, and my appetite was ready to enjoy our first dinner aboard the boat “Little Mustafa” with my ten fellow crew mates.