the Long's Strange Trip

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~  Cultural Differences ~
July 5 through July 26, 2000
$1 U.S. = 625,000 Turkish Lire
(Remember to click on the thumbnails for enlargements of the photos)

Ankara, Turkey
July 5 through July 7, 2000

(ccl) Back to the realities of independent travel...We hadn't become TOO soft during our time with the Fez Travel folks, but being back on our own caused a small amount of confusion as we attempted to negotiate the Turkish public transportation system to get to Ankara in order to meet up with our cultural exchange group.  Kadir's took us as far as the main road in their luxury complementary mini-bus, then we caught the dolmus , which is a generic term for one of the hundreds of mini-buses that navigate the roads around the country, providing quick transportation between spots, usually no more than an hour's drive apart.  We settled in for the packed, non-air conditioned ride to Antalya.  My seatmates were a man and his little daughter, who started the ride off with a bang by throwing up.  Her mother must have anticipated this, because she quickly handed over a small plastic bag, which got quite a workout during the hour-long ride.  Once in Antalya, we boarded a big, modern bus for Ankara, which was eight hours away.

Wiley found LISLE on the Internet.  Affiliated with the University of Toledo, LISLE was formed shortly after WWII with the charter of facilitating understanding between people of different cultures.  The idea is that if you can get people talking to each other, and understanding that we're all really not so different after all, you can, on something of a grass roots level, foster peace and friendship among the people of the world.  Fundamentally, I completely agree with this concept, because it seems to me that if you know someone on a personal level, and if you have some concept of the challenges they face in their day to day life, if you experience their traditions and customs, and if they reciprocate by showing an interest in yours, it's pretty much impossible to feel indifference about them.  We wanted to do some volunteer work somewhere while on the trip, and LISLE promised the opportunity to do just that while in Turkey, in addition to participating in personal exchanges with Turkish people.  The first week of the three week trip would be spent visiting various sites around Ankara and in the Cappadocia region, the second staying in the home of a Turkish family in the city of Gazientep, and the final four or five days resting, relaxing, and sunning on the Mediterranean coast.


I had communicated with the group leaders, Leyla and Ray Welkin from Olympia, Washington, via email several times.  Not knowing what time we'd get into Ankara, I had told Leyla that we would meet them at the hotel on Thursday morning.  On Wednesday night we rolled into the Ankara bus station, which was bigger than the airports in many mid-size American cities, and asked several cab drivers if they knew the hotel we were trying to get to.  Of course, they all said that they knew it, and luckily I was paying attention as the cab flew by the place and told him to turn around.  As we walked up to the building, which looked less and less like a hotel the closer we got, a man approached us and in broken English asked us what we were looking for.  We showed him the piece of paper with the name of the place we were staying, which was the Koy Hizmetleri Genel Mudurlu Guest House.  By this time I was pretty sure we must be at the wrong place, and we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but he told us to follow him, and led us through a guarded gate.  We entered the lobby of a building whose architecture could only be categorized as belonging to the Late 60's College Dormitory school, and found that with our new friend gone, no one spoke English.  We invoked the Welkin's name, we invoked the name of our Turkish guide, Filiz (whose last name we didn't know), we invoked the name of LISLE - nothing worked.  Finally, someone offered us tea, the essential fluid of the Turkish social machine.  Turks can't do anything without tea - the ones I spent time with seemed to need at least one every two hours. 

Eventually, we were given a key to a room, the look and smell of which completed the college dorm picture.  Whatever - we were just happy to be somewhere, and we were pretty sure that it was the place we were supposed to be, so that was even better.  We went downstairs, after looking up the Turkish word for restaurant, and said "Lokanta?" to the first apparent employee we encountered.  A woman overheard us, and motioned for us to follow her into the restaurant.  We assumed that she was an employee, but when she escorted us to her table and introduced us to her male companion, we knew differently.  It just so happed that there was a circumcision party going on in the restaurant that night.  Turks circumcise their sons at age ten (ouch!), but the surgery itself is preceded by a day of partying that includes allowing the circumcisee to request anything from his parents and have it delivered.  Not a bad deal, I suppose.  The little boy who was celebrating that night, and I have to assume that he hadn't actually visited the doctor yet, since he seemed pretty chipper, wore a spiffy white tux with tails and was enjoying boogying the night away.  Meanwhile, we were feeling completely out of place, as we were still dressed in shorts and t-shirts after our eight-hour bus ride.  Our tablemates had taken us under their wings, and although they spoke no English, they began to fill our plates with the food from theirs, despite our protests.  This is the Turkish way.  Guests are treated with the utmost respect and deference, and people who invade your dinner table are apparently no exception.  We managed to get some dinner ordered, and tried to make conversation with our tablemates, using the guidebook's rudimentary English/Turkish dictionary.  It was an interesting night.

The next morning we met Leyla and Ray.  We ate breakfast while they explained that much of the trip might be somewhat unstructured, and that we might spend a good deal of time paying our respects to various government officials and drinking tea.  That afternoon the remainder of the group convened, and the makeup was as follows:

Leyla and Ray, and their sons Evan (15) and Avery (13).  Leyla is a psychologist who just quit her practice in frustration over managed care, and will begin teaching in the fall.  Ray manages the Waldorf School in Olympia.  Waldorf is an educational system founded on the principles of Rudolf Steiner, an eccentric scientist/philosopher from Germany who espoused somewhat far-out ideas about farming, education, and utopian societies.  Evan finished up there last year and Avery has two more years. 

Deb Marois from Sacramento, California.  Deb works with grass-roots organizations in and around Sacramento to help them develop various health education programs, especially those geared towards women.

Debbie Sobeloff from Bethesda, Maryland.  Debbie just moved back to Bethesda and plans to do some substitute teaching while beginning a career in writing.  A veteran of two LISLE trips, Debbie had just returned home from a 5-week retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in the French wine country (see Books We've Read for more on Thich Nhat Hanh).

Vickey McNeal from Griffin, Georgia.  Vickey's accent dripped with Southern flavor, like a slice of chess pie.  It made me homesick to hear her talk.  Vickey teaches in a school for children who have disciplinary problems in Griffin.  She can't wait to retire next year and fulfill her passion full time - world travel.

Patty Summa from Cambridge, Massachusetts.  Patty teaches 8th grade history in Cambridge, just outside of Boston (and home to Harvard).  Patty ran the Boston Marathon as a renegade a few years ago, so we talked incessantly about running until we bored everyone around us. 

Sally Butler from Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  Sally is a grade-school counselor and an extremely young grandmother of twins.  She also possesses a deadly dry wit which kept me laughing during the whole trip.

We also had a Turkish guide, Filiz, who arranged our first week in the Cappadocia region of Turkey, which is her home.  She teaches archeology in college in the town of Neveshehir.  Our group, although decidedly female, was extremely diverse and easy-going.  Given the somewhat tedious nature of some of our days during the trip, the good nature of the group allowed us to survive.

I'm pretty sure we weren't prepared to assume the new roles of "group tourists".  For nearly six months we had been doing pretty much exactly as we pleased, and group travel demands that each member function as a unit of the group, not as an individual.  When people in the group need money, the whole group must participate in the exercise of going to the bank.  When members of the group need to get laundry done, everyone must go to the same place.  You can't say, hey, I need to get some money, let's detour the van to the bank of my choice and have everyone wait while I take care of my needs.  The trip can't work that way.  So we had to change our way of thinking, and it was difficult at times.

Kybele, goddess of fertility, giving birth  The plan for the first week of the trip was to visit the Museum of Anatolian Civilization in Ankara, then head for the town of Mustaphapasa, which would be our base of exploration for the Cappadocia region.  The museum was very well done and extremely fascinating.  There were extensive displays of rock carvings, cooking vessels, jewelry, and ceremonial articles from the ancient Hitite culture.  I vaguely remember the Hitites being mentioned in the Bible, but never knew too much about them.  They thrived in Turkey from 1900 to 1300 B.C., and had quite an extensive civilization.  Even more fascinating were the 8000 year old cave paintings from the Neolithic civilization at Catal Hoyuk.  Archeologists have been carrying out extensive excavations at this site for almost 80 years, and have found layer upon layer of houses and other buildings.  8000 year old finger painting     

Interior of the Tomb of King Gordias  We also visited the tomb of King Midas while in Ankara, which turned out to be, more than likely, the tomb of King Gordias, but I don't think the people who run the place are in any hurry to clear up the misconception, since everyone has heard of King Midas and almost no one has heard of King Gordias.  The interesting thing about this place was that the interior of the tomb was constructed with wood, and that wood has survived for some 6000 years!!  It's still wood today - not petrified wood, and it looks like it was built last week.  Historians believe it may be the oldest wooden structure in the world, and I was amazed, especially since we couldn't keep the carpenter bees out of the arbor on our deck for more than one year.  I found it interesting to reflect on the similarities of some of the burial rituals we have seen amongst ancient civilizations - the Egyptians, the Incas, the Mayans, and now the Gordians.  They all thought it important to entomb the bodies of rulers in preparation for the next life, and often buried them in elaborately built buildings, with articles from daily life that they might need in the next world.

In Ankara we had the first of many conversational encounters with Turkish people.  We met two of Filiz's friends who are active in the women's rights movement, a movement which is in its infancy in this country.  One woman was a psychologist who works with women and children who have been physically and/or sexually abused, and the other was a chemical engineer.  They were both extremely intelligent, and it was very interesting to learn about the political climate in Turkey today, especially as it applies to women.  As a very male-dominated society, Turkey still has a long way to go with respect to even the basic needs of the female portion of the country.  Even though Turkey gave women the vote before most European countries and the United States, there are still many inequalities that exist, and most people feel that in reality, women are still an oppressed minority in Turkey. 

Cappadocia Region, Turkey
July 7 through July 16, 2000

Lunar landscape  The Cappadocia Region of Turkey is probably the most visually stunning area of the country.   Three volcanoes combined forces more than 10 million years ago to spread the area with a thick layer of volcanic ash.  This ash hardened into a soft, porous stone called tufa, and millions of years of wind and rain shaped the stone into the chimneys, pinnacles, and mounds that  make Cappadocia resemble a moonscape.  In addition to the amazing natural formations of the area, people have hewn homes and churches out of the soft rock for many centuries, and even built entire cities as many as 40 stories below ground when enemies threatened.  

It's always a good time for tea  Filiz lives in Nevsehir, so she knows the area well, and wanted to show us many things.  Because of this, we spent eight days in Cappadocia, when in reality, three or four would probably have been plenty for me.  Everywhere we went, Filiz knew somebody, and more often than not, we were invited to drink tea with them.  I mentioned above that tea is very important in Turkish social life.  It's considered rude not to offer a visitor tea, and reciprocally, it's considered rude not to accept tea when it's offered.  Filiz had arranged for us to meet several local dignitaries as part of our "cultural exchange", and each and every one offered us at least tea, and sometimes also soft drinks and lunch.  Some of these encounters were very interesting.  The guys we met with were local officials, regional governors, mayors, and police chiefs.  Some of them expressed some pretty lofty thinking for small-time Turkish government employees.  A couple of them talked about facilitating cultural understanding between people of different countries, and how it's really the only way to ensure peace among nations.  Others talked about the environment, and the need to preserve and protect.  One even talked about a program he was putting into place to support women who are in difficult marriages (It's still legal in Turkey for a man to publicly denounce his wife for no good reason, and leave her penniless).  

One of the officials we met with spoke a good bit of English, as the Turkish government had sent him abroad to England to study for a year.  Bilal Olmez seemed to have two modes of communication: constant talking or loud, uncontrolled laughter.  He asked us lots of questions, ranging from whether we believed in the existence of UFO's to what, if any, tips we had for him about investing in the New York Stock Exchange.  When we asked him what we could do to facilitate his efforts to bring education and technology to the young people of his area, he responded that he felt that one of the most important things that the children in the area could learn was how to speak English.  Turkish children receive several years of schooling in English, but getting extra resources for the training is sometimes difficult.  He asked that if possible, we send any type of English books, magazines, and newspapers, to help with English instruction.  I thought this might make a great project for some of our readers, especially the children, so here's where to send books:

Bilal Olmez
Kozakli Kaymakami
Nevsehir, Turkey

Include a note that says that you heard about his desire to receive English reading materials through an American friend that participated in the LISLE Cultural Exchange program.

Avery hopes his friends don't see him doing this  Along with the interesting cultural encounters that week, there were some strange ones.  I mentioned above that one of the reasons we chose this trip was that there was to be an opportunity to do volunteer work.  Different things were mentioned, but one of the things we latched on to, and were excited about, was the possibility of helping archeologists at an active dig.  We knew it would be grunt work, and that we probably wouldn't uncover the Rosetta Stone or anything like that, but it sounded like fun.  Unfortunately, this was where we encountered one of our "cultural differences" with Filiz.  The Turks wanted to treat us like respected dignitaries, and having us do work would have gone against that.  They were also concerned that we might get sick in the heat if we did anything outdoors, which was probably a valid concern.  All this contributed to the difficulty of getting a project set up, and what finally served as our volunteer opportunity ended up being nothing short of hilarious.  Having been told that we were concerned about the environment, one of the local mayors we met responded that he'd be happy for us to paint his water treatment plant.  So, armed with brushes and buckets of whitewash, we attacked the plant with a vengeance.  Our cheerfulness quickly diminished once we learned that we not only had to paint the small building, but also the large water holding tank.  And let me just take a moment here to correct a major misnomer that people like our good friend Steve Ernst, owner of a water company, perpetuate.  It's not a "water" treatment plant, it's a "sewage" treatment plant, and it certainly smelled like one.  The wind was particularly fierce that day, and no location was safe from the smell of the local wastewater.  Despite the circumstances, the group pulled together and finished the job, and managed to laugh hysterically many times in the process.

A man's home is literally, his castle  During the week in Cappadocia, we had some really good experiences.  Among them were visiting the Open Air Museum in Goreme.  I told you above that people have lived in this area for centuries, fashioning their existence out of the rock formations, carving a new room out of the rock when a new baby is born. The Open Air Museum is a concentrated area of dwellings and churches, and it's amazing.  You walk around this place and wonder out loud if these people ever looked around themselves as they went about their daily lives and said, "Man, this is a wild looking place!  I can't believe I live in that cave over there!".  The churches are even more incredible, with dramatic wall paintings that ranged from primitive to extensive, rivaling anything I've seen in Rome or elsewhere.  The primitive paintings are especially interesting, with some of them calling to mind a time when early Christians in the area may have combined worship of the Holy Trinity with a more naturalistic bent, as their lives revolved around and depended on nature and its whims.  Christianity with a twist

She's only 16!!  One of the most bizarre and perhaps embarrassing cultural exchanges of my life occurred the night we attended a local wedding celebration.  In Turkish culture, there are a couple of parties that lead up to the wedding, maybe sort of like our rehearsal dinner concept.  We attended the henna party, which is the event at which the bride's hands and feet are decorated with henna, the green powder that, when mixed with water, makes a temporary brownish-red dye.  I've heard several stories about just why this is done, but I think it's supposed to ensure fertility for the bridal couple.  At the party we went to, which was in a small village about 30 minutes from where we were staying, the bride sat in the middle of a cluster of approximately 200 women, young and old.  Occasionally the bride's friends danced around her, and the entire time these women just sat and watched.  Someone told me that one of their purposes in being there is to check out the local girls as potential wives for their sons and brothers.  The really embarrassing aspect of this thing for me was that, as the tourists, we were escorted to the center of the cluster (Turkish hospitality at work again) in order to meet the bride.  This ensured that everyone there got a good look at us, and that we obstructed their views of the proceedings, for which several loudly complained.  While we women were making spectacles of ourselves, the men were hovering on the fringes of the group.  Wiley, Evan, and Avery made friends with several of the local boys, and at one point we looked over and saw Evan choking down the first cigarette of his life.  He also took a turn shooting one of the boy's pistols, something else he had never done.  We all found it quite ironic that a boy from the supposed mean streets of America had to come to Turkey to get a chance at shooting a gun. 

I'm smiling like an idiot, but I'm really freaking out (a little)  Another amazing attraction in the Cappadocia region was the underground city.  Apparently, there are several in the area, and the one we visited was a system of cool, labyrinthine tunnels, punctuated by rooms used as schools, churches, wineries, stables, and storage areas.  When enemies invaded, the people of the region went underground, coming up only to tend their crops.  It was somewhat suffocating being eight floors underground (the city goes for some forty stories below ground, but safety concerns keep the tourists from going that far below), and I couldn't help but wonder how people were able to spend weeks and months below ground like that.  There was plenty of fresh air, thanks to an extensive system of ventilation shafts, and the temperature hovered around 55 degrees, which was entirely preferable to the ground level readings, but we all agreed that we were pretty sure we wouldn't survive long down there.  However, I guess you can do anything if you must, especially if your survival is in question.   We even hear that people in America are eating rats to survive, but that's another story, and one we're pretty sure we don't mind missing out on. 

Christie and Patty negotiate a chalky tunnel  We had an marvelous hike in the area on our last day in Cappadocia.  Once I had seen those rock formations up close, I realized that I hadn't fully appreciated the beauty of the area before.  We scrambled up and down hills amid groves of shady apricot trees, laden with delicious ripe fruit.  At one point we crossed a deep gully and climbed up into a cave to discover that it was one of the many hidden churches used by early Christians in the area.  The soft tufa facilitated carving into beautiful structures, and here in the middle of nowhere we marveled at the full and semi-domes, archways, and ornate columns in this serene structure.  It was easy to imagine how one might come to talk to God in this tranquil setting.  Primitive, but beautiful - Cappadocian church

What happened to the bottom of the pot? (and no, these aren't my pants)  And then, there's the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey would say.  Unfortunately, much of the week was consumed with traveling around the region by van, going from site to site, and given the brutal heat, it was miserable much of the time.  Even though the van had air conditioning, it just couldn't compete with the intense sun.  Also, someone contracted a stomach virus, which eventually spread to pretty much everyone in the group.  Some of the sites we trucked it several hours to see consisted of not much more than "holes in the ground", as Vickey so aptly named them.  We visited a place to buy carpets, which turned out to be a major tourist trap, and many people felt that they had been ripped off.  When some members of the group wanted to stop and look at ceramics, which the area was famous for, we were again taken to a major tourist spot, where the prices were unapproachable.  The highlight for me was correctly answering the presenter's question and getting suckered into demonstrating just how impossible it is to make a clay pot. 

Probably the most "touristy" thing we have done since leaving home in February was attending a "Turkish Folk Show" one night while in Cappadocia.  Filiz knew a woman who owned this nightclub, and she had graciously offered to host the group, free of charge, for an evening of folk dancing and Turkish food and drink.  This is the kind of activity we shy away from when traveling on our own.  I don't know how much people were paying to attend this show, but I've always felt like you can get a better sense of local culture, food, and music, by seeking out the establishments where the locals go.  The evening turned out to be pretty much as we expected - mediocre food and drink, and some decent folk dancing.  The most interesting aspect of the evening for probably everybody was the oiled wrestling competition that took place first.  Oiled wrestling is serious sport in Turkey, having been around for over 1000 years.  The month we were there a big championship festival took place.  The competition worked this way:  four muscular men entered the ring, which is a large grassy area, and then proceeded to make themselves good and greasy with vast quantities of olive oil.  After some type of posturing activities, which included much slapping of hands on thighs and checking down their opponent's pants for weapons, they then paired off into twos and tried to pin each other, face up, to the ground.  The holds that the wrestlers used were unlike anything I had seen before - not that I'm an avid student of wrestling, but I've watched my share during the Olympics.  In oiled wrestling, it's apparently quite legal, if not encouraged, to plunge your hands down your opponent's leather britches in an attempt to get a good hold on something.  Since we couldn't see what the wrestler's hands actually did while they were down his opponent's pants, we can only speculate.  It was all good fun, and certainly quite a bit of it was staged, including the part where two of the wrestlers fell to the ground right in front of me, and one of them grabbed my foot in an attempt to make me part of the battle.  Can you see the slimyness??

All in all, it was a fascinating but tiring week.  After five months of setting our own pace, we found it tough to adjust to an 8 - 7 schedule.  We were optimistic about the next phase of the trip, which included five days staying with local families in the city of Gaziantep.  On Sunday we got up bright and early for a seven hour drive, and eagerly awaited meeting our hosts for the week. 

Click here to continue in Turkey with "Home on the Range"


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