GOING SOMEWHERE: TURKEY
We're headed out East, Byzantine style.
My first night in Istanbul, everyone I meet has a death metal name—Volkan, Serkan, Vahit, to name a few—and though they’re sweet and buying me beer, their names are hard and glorious, conjuring dungeons, horns, and frozen forests. I’m asking them for ideas, places to go in Turkey during my week-long trip, and I make the mistake of mentioning oil wrestling. Sure, men in calfskin lederhosen covered in olive oil wrestling in a field is, in fact, the national sport, but apparently asking a bunch of artists about it is stupid. “That’s like us coming to New York and saying, ‘Where’s the rodeo?’” says one. So I pivot to camel wrestling, insisting I’d seen photos of the animals, necks entangled, vying for the lady camel in heat on the sidelines. “Sorry, wrong country—maybe go to Arabia?” a girlfriend chimes in. Ouch.
This story was published on July 16, 2012.
The next day, hoping to tear off my scarlet “A” for “American,” I turn to Google. Sure enough, two days later a man called Asif (implausibly named given my vindication-seeking agenda) emails me, saying he not only knows the current camel wrestling champ, but also the fair maiden who won the camel beauty contest, and can set up a meeting. Very tempting, but I already have plans to go south to Olympos, a Mediterranean village with treehouses, eternal flames, and the allure of having been a favorite rendezvous for Zeus and his nymphs. A one-hour flight takes me to Antalya, along the Turkish riviera, where I catch a shared-ride mini-van heading west. Hugging the coast, we pass pine-covered mountains sliding into pebble beaches and turquoise water, sheep on leashes, and roadside cafés serving fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice and black tea with sugar cubes. It’s the beginning of November and the end of the tourist season, so I have my pick of the pansiyonlar on Olympos’ only road. All have rustic wooden treehouses and cabins, some more rickety and kitsch than others, and banks of cushions for fireside eating. I settle on Dog˘a, where three women are peeling vegetables in an orange grove and an English-speaking son shows me to a little cabin with shiny wood floors and rose-printed sheets. A river runs to the sea, and strewn casually along its banks are remnants of Roman rule dating from the second century—elegantly crumbling temples and sarcophaguses wrapped in wild grapevines, soaking up the salty air. The sun has set, and the once-purple mountains sheltering the beach are now blue. Two Germans climb out of the water to reunite with their clothes, and a guy with dark, wavy locks and a motorcycle jacket rolls a joint and ponders the waves. Far away, a fire pit flickers through stubby palms, and as I get close, an elegant older couple (well, he is older) waves me over, offering yogurt with garlic and cucumbers and warm pita bread.
I’m at Olympos Lodge, which the older gentleman, Aysen, opened 25 years ago, long before it became a party town; they say that Charlize Theron and Tom Hanks have slept here, but presumably not together. I leave their swell rabbit hole and continue a mile-long, mostly uphill trek to Yanartas, where fire spews out of vents in the mountainside. Methane seepage is the boring explanation, but a better theory involves a Greek hero who slays Chimera, a fire-breathing lioness-goat-snake. Her flames were beacons for ancient sailors, and now, sore travelers use them to brew tea. After two hours, I reach the summit and join a group with accents from all over, huddled campfire-style, and passing around bottles of wine. The next day I go farther west to Ölüdeniz, to swim in an electric-blue lagoon and to paraglide off the region’s highest mountain. Along the way, every place has a story. There’s Xanthos, whose people set fire to the acropolis and leapt into the flames; the Letoön temple that’s taken over by frogs and terrapins; Patara, a half-buried city where Santa Claus was born; and Kayaköy, abandoned by the Greeks in the 1920s and now a spooky, gray ghost town. The sky is cloudless and the sun blazing, so when I arrive at Orange Butik Hotel I turn my sink into a washing machine and my balcony into a dryer. My white cardigan looks, smells, and for the most part is an ashtray, and my go-to shirt has blood stains down the back from an overzealous hammam lady and her sandpaper mitt. Mission accomplished, I hit the beach to find a pilot for my first paraglide. I do the rounds and select Jay, a tall, meaty Turk who claims he’s been flying for 19 crash-free years. Even more impressive is his work-six-months-a-year lifestyle. Piling into the truck with us are an 80-year-old Austrian pilot and two Japanese guys whose nervous faces remind me that I’m about to do something potentially fatal.
Zooming up Mount Babadag, the jalopy’s tires skid under the gravel of the narrow, guardrail-less climb, and each hairpin turn sends rocks over the edge. Finally at the summit, two kilometers high, the weather conditions are changing fast. I’m handed a jumpsuit, pair of shoes, and given quick instructions, and in a flash we’re careening through a cloud. Crossing over the sea toward the beaches, my brain can’t quite compute why I feel so relaxed, given that I’m just dangling in the open air. Breaking the euphoria is the smell of smoke, which, I quickly realize, is only my nicotine-addicted pilot. Leaving the sea and sand behind, I travel toward Turkey’s mid-section, to Cappadocia, a place that sounds like a kingdom in a Harlequin romance and looks like Mars. Millions of years ago, angry volcanoes flooded the plains, and wind and rain continue to mold the lava and ash into fantastical golden forms. Among molten ridges, pillars with triangular caps look like towering mushrooms, but it’s their uncanny resemblance to something else that’s inspired what locals call “Love Valley.” Since the Bronze Age, people have dug into the soft rock, carving out caves, castles, churches, and even nine-story underground cities. And in recent years, the above-ground honeycombs have been converted into heartbreakingly magical homes and boutique hotels.
Another guy named Volkan, young, bored, and anxious, works the bar at the Argos hotel, where he’s responsible for “guest relations.” He’s incongruously charming and handsome, truths not lost on him. After his shift, he shows me a “secret” labyrinth of tunnels connecting the hotel to the many-storied castle above. Coming up for air, we climb to a rock at the edge of a cliff, where he takes my arms like Leonardo DiCaprio did Kate Winslet’s and sings the Titanic song. I have a sneaking suspicion I am not his first Rose. I awake at dawn for a hot-air balloon ride, an activity I’d always thought was reserved for geriatrics. But there seems to be no better way to make an already hallucinogenic place even more surreal than floating over it in a wicker basket. Back on the ground, a guide named Ismail takes me to Göreme, where Christians hallowed out rock monoliths to make churches some 1,200 years ago. Plain Flintstone mansions on the outside, their interiors are covered with astonishing jewel-toned frescoes of Jesus, saints, and apostles. The fact that most had their faces or eyes scratched off by disapproving invaders adds to their mystery. Like a cloud of dust follows Pig Pen, a Great Dane and a fluffy three-legged mutt follow the Kale Konak hotel’s owner, Abdullah. He’s carrying an axe, and for a second I think it’s to intimidate the temperamental soap opera star who’s been over-staying her welcome. But the tomahawk is to open my testi kebab, a clay pot filled with slow-cooked lamb and vegetables sealed with bread dough that’s difficult to crack. Curled up by the fireplace, I remember the night outside the bar in Istanbul, fresh off the plane and stepping into piles of clichés, no clue where to go. Since then I’ve scaled mountains, time-traveled centuries, kept vampire hours, tarred my lungs, lived in caves, fallen in and out of love a few times, and flown over the Mediterranean and Mars. Not a bad week, but more begets wanting more: I make a mental note to write Asif back about those camels.
--VICTORIA DE SILVERIO